It took eight years to film and edit at the real cost of about $200,000. But finally, this January, a one-hour documentary on Indian trail trees that inadvertently began with the simple curiosity of a spirited group of trail-building volunteers in Georgia has been released for private screenings across the country.
“Getting the documentary done has been a tough thing because the Natives didn’t necessarily want to talk to us. The trees are sacred to them and they don’t want any harm to come to the trees,” explained Don Wells, the 75-year-old founder of Mountain Stewards and co-executive producer of the film. He said he gradually earned the trust and respect of many Natives, who realized that this non-Native had a genuine interest in preserving the trees, not exploiting them.
Wells never planned on making a documentary — or writing his book, “Mystery of the Trees” — when he and his group started building hiking trails back in 2003. But the more they began discovering these odd-looking, bent trees the more interested he became in studying these living artifacts.
Historians think that these bent trees were not freaks of nature, but rather, shaped by Native Americans to communicate. Back before the days of GPS, it is believed that these marker trees helped Natives find water sources, burial sites and special medicinal plants.
Jason Hill's cheddar jalapeno frybread.
“There is no national law to preserve these trees and they need to be preserved,” said Wells, a retired Navy civil engineer. “There are parts of Native American culture that are almost destroyed, and people need to start being concerned about this stuff.” To date, the Mountain Stewards and over 100 volunteers across the U.S. have identified and mapped more than 2,000 trees in 40 states.
The documentary, like the book, is called “Mystery of the Trees,” and is narrated by Native actor Wes Studi, who starred in “Dancing with Wolves” and “Last of the Mohicans.” It features interviews with elders from tribes such as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, United Ketoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, Northern and Southern Utes, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Comanche Nation and Osage Nation. The film is as much about preserving Native culture in general, as it is about the trees. “Our stories must be told to our young people while those who know are still with us,” Studi says in the film.
Dr. James Jefferson, an 82-year-old Ute elder, agrees. “Young people nowadays have forgotten their language, their culture and their traditions. Now the elders are leaving us, and the young adults and parents are realizing that they should have listened to our teachings about the culture, the trees and the land,” he explained in the documentary. In Ute culture, trail trees are known as prayer trees. “They are very spiritual,” said Jefferson, and according to Wells, Natives believe that their ancestors are with them when they are in the presence of these marker trees.
John Anderson of Colorado Springs is another non-Native who is trying to help Native Americans connect with these sacred trees. The 61-year-old former sheriff of El Paso County, Colorado, and Lockheed Martin system engineer is a charter member of the Tava Host Committee, a nonprofit group that started the Ute Prayer Tree Gathering in Colorado Springs (Jefferson is also a founding member of the nonprofit).
“Our focus is to reunite the Ute with these trees and the trees to the Ute. A few elders knew about them, but it seemed like that wasn’t being communicated to the youth,” said Anderson, who recently wrote a book about Indian prayer trees of the Pikes Peak region. He said the annual conference (the third one will be held this August 9-14) was also created to offer a safe environment for Ute elders, like Dr. Jefferson, to pass on their knowledge and culture to the youth.
“When we talk to the Ute youth about the trees, they say: ‘I didn’t know our ancestors did this with the trees. Why didn’t the elders say anything?’ And then when you ask the elders, they say: ‘Well, the kids don’t listen to us anymore. They are only interested in the music and dancing,’” said Anderson, whose group hopes to raise enough money to cover the $250/participant cost, so it will be free to the Ute people.
Wells was invited to last year’s conference, after Anderson connected with him while doing research for his book. And he will be at this year’s gathering, too, to show the documentary.
Wells’s next project is a second documentary on Northern tribes in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota. “I’d rather do this than go on a cruise,” said the retiree. While he and his wife, Diane, have covered travel expenses for themselves and the film crew out of their own savings, the Mountain Stewards founder said he hopes to generate about $75,000 from book and DVD sales to pay for this next film.
The “Mystery of the Trees” DVD can be purchased for $19.99 online at MysteryTrees.org.
Lynn Armitage is a contributing business writer and enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, a northern tribe. She looks forward to seeing what Wells will discover about her ancestral roots.