Western redcedars suitable for large canoes, totem poles are in short supply, say researchers

·3 min read
Five First Nations on Vancouver Island and B.C.'s Central Coast are taking steps to ensure there are enough western redcedars for making totem poles, canoes and traditional big houses in the future. (Ken Lertzman - image credit)
Five First Nations on Vancouver Island and B.C.'s Central Coast are taking steps to ensure there are enough western redcedars for making totem poles, canoes and traditional big houses in the future. (Ken Lertzman - image credit)

Researchers from Simon Fraser University have turned to First Nations carvers to help them determine how many large western redcedars suitable for totem poles, canoes or traditional big houses are left in parts of Kwakwaka'wakw territory.

The project was spurred by the Nanwakolas Council which represents five Kwakwaka'wakw communities on eastern Vancouver Island and the Central Coast.

Using Traditional Ecological Knowledge to Understand the Diversity and Abundance of Culturally Important Trees, published in the Journal of Ethnobotany earlier this week by Jordan Benner, Julie Nielsen and Ken Lertzman, found only a few hundred large trees with the right characteristics remain in the study area.

"We've realized that these trees of this dimension just aren't in the abundance they used to be," said Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council.

Mark Wunsch
Mark Wunsch

The council represents the K'ómoks, Wei Wai Kum, Da'naxda'xw Awaetlala, Tlowitsis and Mamalilikulla First Nations, whose combined traditional territories cover about 22,000 square kilometres on Vancouver Island and the Central Coast.

It's where Western redcedars, British Columbia's official tree, grow to staggering sizes over hundreds of years.

After examining thousands of trees, researchers found an estimated 347 large cultural cedars within the study area that meet their criteria.

They are sometimes called the "tree of life" because Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest of North America use the species extensively for cultural practices related to clothing, transportation, housing and spirituality.

Mark Wunsch
Mark Wunsch

Industrial logging in the province has greatly reduced the number of large, old-growth western redcedars which are also highly prized by the commercial forest industry.

The trees and how they are logged are at the centre of the latest conflict between the lumber industry and conservationists currently playing out in areas of southern Vancouver Island between Port Renfrew and Port Alberni.

Benner, the lead author on the paper, says the team's research approach was unique, in that it involved scientific surveys to determine how many of the large trees remain, but also tapped into the traditional ecological knowledge of 13 carvers who were interviewed about the trees they select.

"To do good science with communities you really need to kind of build that relationship with the community partners," he said.

Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press

As a result, researchers discovered eight characteristics, such as size, that make an appropriate tree for carvers. But the number of knots the tree has, its shape and sweep are also important. Taking those characteristics into account, the authors found that there are few trees left to make large products such as a community canoe, or a main beam for a big house used for ceremonial gatherings.

"We see that certain types of trees, such as those associated with the specifications for carving canoes for community use, are nearly extirpated from the land base," reads the paper.

'Turning point'

"This low predicted abundance of suitable trees likely will not meet the cultural needs of carvers and their communities into the future," reads the paper.

Despite the dire prediction, Smith is hopeful that the information can now be used by the council to better protect those trees and the watersheds they grow in.

"It's really a turning point for us to start managing our needs going forward," he said. "It's nice to know that we're taking that into our own hands now."

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