Culturally modified tree

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A culturally modified tree in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington, USA

Culturally modified tree (aka CMT) is a tree modified by indigenous people as part of their tradition. Such trees are important sources for the history of certain regions.

The term is used in western Canada and the United States. In British Columbia, one of the most commonly modified trees, particularly on the coast, is the Western Red Cedar. The Sami people of northern Scandinavia and indigenous people of southeast Australia modify trees. Basque herders left thousands of trees in the western United States between 1860 and 1930.



The role of cedars, spruces etc. are taken over by much different species in Australia. Here the red (river) gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) and the grey box (Eucalyptus moluccana) are of most importance. There are certain similarities as far as the usage is concerned. Rhoads published in 1992 that within the territory of Southwest Victoria (about 10,000 km²) 228 CMTs were found in the vicinity of ancient camps.


In British Columbia, Canada, these trees are protected by complex laws. Trees dating before 1846 and registered as CMTs are not allowed to be logged. The first lawsuit concerning CMTs was against a Canadian who had logged CMTs over 300 years old.[1] The oldest living CMT was found in British Columbia. It dates back to the 12th century.[2]).

In Canada, where research was for obvious reasons concentrated in the western provinces with its old forests, Ontario documented CMTs in 2001. In Nagagamisis Provincial Park most trees found were between 80 and 110 years old, some probably more than 400.

On Hanson Island alone, David Garrick documented 1800 CMTs. The Kwakwaka'wakw of the region could stop the destruction of their archive. Garrick also found trees in the Great Bear Rainforest on the territory of the Gitga'at First Nation. They are supposed to be logged for a street in the area of Langford. In February 2008, the Times Colonist reported of protesters being removed.[3]

No license was given between 1996 and 2006, but in that year it was allowed once again - against the resistance of the Haida on Haida Gwaii. Even if loggers accept the restrictions and spare a CMT, these trees are endangered because they lose their "neighbours" and with them the protection against heavy storms. Consequently, Hupacasath First Nation on the western shore of Vancouver Island claims a protective zone around the trees of at least 20 to 30 metres.[4]

The trees are a source of utmost importance for the history of the First Nations, a history that is heavily dependent on oral traditions and archaeological findings for the pre-contact phase.

This causes many problems for historians, ethnohistorians, anthropologists. The logging industry has reduced the old forests to a minimum in most regions and thus destroyed the culturally modified trees.

Another problem is that knowledge of these places is not necessarily public. That is the case with many Nuu-chah-nulth on Vancouver Island. Only that group knows the corresponding rituals, devices, stories and dances, so their consent is needed.

The tiny Island of Flores is home to 71 registered culturally modified trees which are protected like archives, libraries, historic sites or memorials.

After historians and the courts had recognized that the trees of Meares Island are crucial for the culture and history of the Indian Nation living there, other indigenous groups started to register CMTs in their own reserves and in their traditional territories to get the same protection for them. Historians and Indians worked closely together.

Gottesfeld could detect 21 species, which played a certain role as CMTs. Of utmost importance is the Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), but the yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis), spruces (Picea glauca u.a.), hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), pines (Pinus contorta, Pinus ponderosa), in addition Populus tremuloides, Populus trichocarpa and Alnus rubra are also quite frequent. The bark of hemlock and certain spruces was important for nourishment and medicine. The resin of spruces was used as a kind of glue.


CMTs have become important for the history of Scandinavia, too. The Sami people, who also ate certain kinds of bark, were displaced northwards in the 19th century by the Swedish population, who did not eat bark. Consequently, the traces of bark peelers are interrupted from one year to the next, so that historians can exactly tell when the last Sami left the region under examination. The oldest finding ever registered is 2800 years old. Meanwhile, the methods are so much refined that even fossile trees have become an important source for human history.

United States[edit]

The most surprising fact was a consequence of research within the Bob Marshall Wilderness in northwestern Montana. This is a wilderness of about 3,000 km² (in addition another 3000 of neighbouring wildernesses) that was never used by non-aboriginal people. There are no houses, streets, fields or pastures. Nevertheless, the CMTs showed that between at least 1665 and 1938 indigenous people peeled the bark and conducted other uses.

In 1985 a protection program was started in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest. At 338 spots, more than 6000 CMTs were identified, of which 3000 are protected now.

Seventeen CMTs were found in the Blue Mountain area within Pike National Forest, at least 26 in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Trees more than 200 years old were registered in Manitou Experimental Forest north of Woodland Park. Most of these trees within the territory of the Ute are ponderosa pines. Ute elders have differing opinions as to whether CMTs are a tradition.[5] Researchers know that they haven't got that much time. The trees have a life expectancy of 300 to 600 years. Many could be dated, being peeled between 1816 and 1848. In February 2008, the Colorado Historical Society decided to invest a part of its 7 million dollar budget into a CMT project in Mesa Verde National Park.[6] The Bureau of Land Management provides this form form the documentation of CMTs, in conjunction with History Colorado's Office of Archaeology & Historic Preservation.[7]


  1. ^ CBC News v. 17 November 2000: Culturally modified tree-cutting trial resumes
  2. ^ Zackrisson et al. 2000
  3. ^ Bill Cleverley, RCMP move in on anti-highway protest site, in: Times Colonist, 13 February 2008.
  4. ^ Hupacasath land use plan, phase 2, prepared by Tom Whitfield for Hupacasath Band, o. O., o. J. (probably 2005), 44 pp., p. 14.
  5. ^ Are these trees culturally modified ... or just bent? Depends on whom you ask.
  6. ^ Nach [State Historical Fund awards more than $7M in grants, in: Denver Business Journal, 14. February 2008].


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