Puyallup tribal members led by elder and culture director Connie McCloud are harvesting sacred cedar on their ancestral lands for the first time in years.
“Our reservation has become so urbanized and we lost so much property with the coming of the treaties. Our traditional territories are shared, here we’re on state property. So this is the first time we’re harvesting on our ancestral lands for a very, very long time. And for many of the families and individuals, this is the first time that they’ve been able to traditionally follow our culture and help our community pick those practices back up,” McCloud said.
The Department of Natural Resource in Washington state was surveying an area of the Elbe Hills State Forest in eastern Pierce County for future timber sales when they identified a group of trees that had previously been used for cedar harvesting, McCloud said. The department reached out to the tribe to invite them to harvest and by the end of the season, the tribe’s culture center will have led three weekly harvests in the area.
The Puyallup Tribe of Indians has more than 5,000 enrolled members and is based in Tacoma, Wash., at the mouth of the Puyallup River on Puget Sound.
“We know how important cedar bark harvesting is to the indigenous people in this area. That’s why (the Department of Natural Resources) works closely with tribes to facilitate cedar bark harvesting and to ensure tribal rights are respected. Partnership between (the Department of Natural Resources) and tribal communities benefits everyone,” State Lands Archaeologist Sara Palmer said in an email.
As part of Puyallup tradition, tribal members begin the harvest with a group prayer. Then they thank each tree they cut into, harvesting strips of bark. They work carefully to not cut too wide or too deep, which can kill the tree. After pulling off strips of cedar bark up to 40 feet long, the tree’s sap seals the exposed sapwood and begins to heal. Then they meticulously remove the hard bark from the soft inner bark as they continue to thank the cedar for its spirit, McCloud said.
“Our people have always understood the relationship between the spirit, the spirit of the cedar tree and us using the cedar tree. So we always begin by thanking the cedar tree for giving its life to become baskets, to become clothing, to become our carving materials or longhouses,” McCloud said.
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Harvesting from the sacred trees is a time-consuming process. The bark is the best for harvesting in early summer. As the season progresses, the heat hardens the bark, making it more difficult to pull intact strips and clean them. After the bark is collected and cleaned, it’s dried for a year to remove skin-irritating tannins before it’s carved or weaved.
“Cedar is soft, so it’s easy to carve, but it’s very resilient. It’s very sturdy. We remember the gifts that come from the tree, like our canoes. We pray to the cedar tree for being there to help us. So we talk with gratitude to it as we clean and carve,” McCloud said.
The harvesters must come to the forest with good intentions and thoughts, she said, as the wood can absorb their feelings as they harvest, clean and later carve it. For that reason, cedar is also honored in a ceremony before it is used for the construction of longhouses or buildings such as the tribe’s clinic.
“Those that have the gift can pick up your basket in 100 years and know how you were feeling, know that you were feeling good and you were in prayer. Or when you make a gift or item for a funeral, they know that you were in pain or have good memories of that person. And when they’re in buildings like our clinic, the people inside know they can feel safe,” McCloud said.
Cedar part of creation stories
McCloud, whose Puyallup name is Cedar Moon Woman, shared that the tree is symbolic for Native people in many ways.
“Our cedar trees are part of our creation stories. When our people were in a time of great destruction and our forests were burning, we were told to go to the cedar tree and to pray to the cedar tree to give us direction,” she said. “Cedar can live to be 1,200 years old and are some of the oldest trees in the forest. So they’re considered to be the most wise. They’re strong and resilient, carry so much knowledge — just like our people.”
McCloud said the practice of harvesting cedar keeps the tribal members close to their ancestors. As she held a bundle of cedar in her hand, she recalled her grandmother, a basket weaver, who would leave her weaving materials to dry in the rafters of her home.
“We would jump on the bed and try to touch the materials in the rafters. You don’t learn these kinds of things on the internet. You don’t learn them from books. You learn from your family by watching and participating,” she said. “It’s great to see all these young people and families here today. We have a tremendous responsibility to teach future generations these lessons and how to help take care of these forests to be able to preserve these practices.”
Cedar craft kits shared during COVID
During the pandemic, the culture center would mail out craft kits to tribal members throughout the country to participate in Zoom crafting classes. The center also put together medicine packets that included the medicinal uses of cedar.
“We had kits going to Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, New York. It allowed the opportunity for people to participate in their culture and to learn these practices. For many, it was the first time that they’ve participated,” she said.
The culture center asks that the harvesters, many of whom are basket weavers and carvers who harvest cedar for their personal use, to donate half of their bundles to the culture center.
In addition to cultural crafting lessons, the center uses the donated cedar to make traditional medicine for elders and create cedar roses to provide at tribal members’ funerals and other events. The tribe’s new hotel requested 1,000 cedar roses for decoration and to give as gifts to guests, McCloud said.
As the cedar takes a year to dry, ready-to-go cedar supply could be low due to last harvest season’s COVID restrictions, but the Puyallup tribe’s culture center had a large stockpile from a private sale that took place last year.
The center hopes this year’s harvest will provide for more in-person weaving and carving events next year when the cedar is dried and COVID restrictions are lifted, McCloud said.
The last cedar harvest of the season took place July 6.
Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps.