Thuja plicata

Western red-cedar has been featured previously on Botany Photo of the Day (November 20, 2006 and January 10, 2011), but the earlier entries did not touch on the ethnobotany of this important western North American tree species. One of its iconic uses was–and is–for the construction of poles by the Haida Nation.

On Thursday, August 15 (today or tomorrow, depending on where in the world you are reading this entry when published) at 1:00pm PDT, the first pole in over 130 years will be raised in the Gwaii Haanas region of Haida Gwaii–the Legacy Pole. The latter two photographs show the pole being carved in early July, with the middle photograph featuring Haida artist Jaalen Edenshaw (one of the team of carvers). The first photograph shows some of the few remaining standing poles from the village of K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans).

The Legacy Pole is a 12.8m (42 ft.) monumental pole honouring the 20th anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement. This agreement framed the unique cooperative management relationship between the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada for this special area of the world: “an agreement to disagree” on who owns the land, but a partnership on management nonetheless. The Legacy Pole contains much cultural symbolism, including a figure representing Sacred-One-Standing-and-Moving, the supernatural being responsible for earthquakes (a reference to the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that had its epicentre in Haida Gwaii in October, 2012). You can read more about the Legacy Pole and its construction from Parks Canada: The Gwaii Haanas Legacy Pole: Carving Connections or browsing on the web site of the Council of the Haida Nation (many links). A number of videos (including a livestream of the pole-raising at 1:00pm PDT on August 15) are available via: Gwaii Haanas Legacy Pole Raising.

Nancy Turner’s Plant Technology of First Peoples of British Columbia lists the uses of this “most widely employed and most versatile” plant: “…used to the exclusion of almost all other trees to make dugout canoes, house posts and planks, totem poles and mortuary posts, and storage and cooking boxes. Coastal people also used it to make dishes, arrow shafts, harpoon shafts, spear poles, barbecuing sticks, fish spreaders and hangers, dipnet hooks, fish clubs, masks, rattles, benches, cradles, coffins, herring rakes, canoe bailers, ceremonial drums, combs, fishing floats, berry drying racks and frames, fish weirs, spirit whistles and paddles.” Dr. Turner dedicates 9 pages of the book to Thuja plicata–I can find no other plant that exceeds 3 pages.

Thuja plicata
Thuja plicata
Thuja plicata

5 responses to “Thuja plicata”

  1. Shirley Meneice

    Fabulous write-up of a revered and practical tree utilized by those here long before us. Would there be any left, if we had been the first to find it and noticed all its potential uses?

  2. Ann Smreciu

    Thanks for a wonderful look at the western red cedar…. A tree I grew up with on Vancouver Island.

  3. R A McShan

    That first photo… Haunting… energies swirling… misting around and through the hidden corners of memory.

  4. Cyndy Henderson

    Heartwarming entry and gorgeous carving on the pole. Thank you!

  5. Jenn

    Ethnobotany! Love this kind of information. Thank you!

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