North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

We Talk to the Trees

Bentwood BoxGifts From the Forest
The people of the Northwest Coast lived on the edge of the great evergreen forests and were encompassed by a mystic world of spirit beings. They held the cedar in high esteem, for, like the bountiful salmon of the sea, the ubiquitous tree of the forest gave of itself to sustain and enrich their lives.

The climate of the Northwest Coast is temperate and damp. Currents warm the ocean, which tempers the prevailing winds. The warmed air is trapped by the high peaks of the Coast Mountains, preventing cold, continental air from dominating the climate. The mountain barrier also blocks the vapor-laden breezes, creating abundant rainfall, as much as 100 or more inches a year, and a lush evergreen forest.

The effect of this excessive precipitation is apparent in the luxuriant vegetation that covers the mountains. Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), and yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) are the dominant trees. Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), the willow (Salix sp.), and the red alder (Alnus rubrum) and the Oregon alder (Alnus oregona) are found along the streams and river bottoms, along with Douglas maple (Acer glabrum,), shore pine (Pinus contorta), and crab apple (Pyrus fusca).

Mask Hemlock is the most abundant of the woods, but because of its weight and coarse grain, it was of least value to the Tlingit. Spruce is second in quantity, but was economically the most important wood in the life of the people. Houses were built with it; canoes were constructed from its trunk, the roots were used to make baskets, rope, and fishing gear; and the inner bark was eaten.

The cedars were the most valuable trees, but were found only sporadically. The red cedar, from which the large traveling and war canoes were made, grows only in the southern regions. The yellow cedar is more common. Both are fine-grained and were used for carving and household decoration, for chests, boxes, and other domestic purposes. Mats, baskets, rope, and clothing were made from the inner bark.

Many different kinds of berries are native to the Pacific Northwest Coast and are found in great abundance. Blueberries (Vaccinium uliginosum), huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium), salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis), cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccos), strawberries (Fragaria sp.), and raspberries (Rubus sp.) were important to the Tlingit. All of these were eaten fresh, and most of them were also preserved for winter use.

From the rainforest came a wealth of raw materials vital to the way of life, art, and culture of the Tlingit. They recognized these as gifts of nature and accepted them with gratitude.


Image 1: Bentwood Chest with Lid
Haida, mid 1800s
Ornately carved chests like this one held the family heirlooms and regalia. On special occasions, the house-master sat on a chest and on his death it sometimes became his coffin.
Yellow cedar? (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis), Western red cedar? (Thuja plicata), mineral paints, commercial cotton, iron, steel; L 48.5 x W 75.0 x H 41.5 cm; 3178-109 a & b

Image 2: Mask
Nuuchahnulth or Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl), Kyoquot Sound or Quatsino Sound, early 1800s
With a crooked knife, a woodworker could carve curved surfaces and the finest details on masks, rattles, boxes, and other decorative items. This dance mask shows the tool marks of a specialist skilled in carving wood.
Unidentified wood, mineral paints, iron; L 22.0 x W 16.0 x H 8.5; 3178-36

 

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