Cedar trees grow straight and tall, smell good, won't rot in the rain and make great canoes
The Marquam Trail winds its way up to an unexpected destination when it reaches Ray Losey's house not far from Council Crest. There, in plain view, is a colorful totem pole Losey has carved and painted.
It is one among many that Losey, who is part Native American, has hewn and carved from ancient Western Red cedar trees. First Nation peoples living north of the Columbia River along the rugged Pacific Coast have carved hundreds of totem poles over the last three or more centuries.
Losey, like the totem poles themselves, tells stories. He is deeply versed in the history, art and craft of Pacific Northwest indigenous people. He enjoys sharing what he knows with curious, inquiring hikers.
Recently, he warmly welcomed me into his sunny, art-filled living room. We soon plunged into a wide-ranging discussion about First Nation culture and its much- celebrated art.
The subject is sprawling, even mystical, but we focused on the central place of Western Red cedar trees in First Nation cultures. Cedar is the raw material of totem poles and much that sustained the tribes that lived, and still live, on the storm-lashed, isolated coast all the way to southeast Alaska.
"The native people really were Cedar people," said Losey, who is devoted to working with the fragrant, soft wood of the trees which still grow in the hills near his house. The prevalence of cedar is reflected in local names such as Cedar Hills, Cedar Mill and Cedar Creek.
The trees, with their strong straight grain, can be monumental in size and age. Specimens have been found that are more than 10 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall. One tree was determined to be 1,400 years old.
So pervasive is the tree in the Pacific Northwest culture of aboriginal groups that theirs might well be called a "Cedar Culture," Losey said.
The indigenous peoples north of us depended on Western Red Cedar for their very survival. Because they lived on the narrow edge of impenetrable forests and at the foot of mountain barriers, their sustenance came from the sea, They fished and hunted whales in immense, ocean-going cedar canoes. The light-weight, strong, straight-grained wood allowed the sturdy, buoyant canoes to withstand the pounding waves. The boats were nearly as long as the double- trailer semis we encounter on our interstate highways.
Clothes, hats, bowls, tools, blankets and mats were all crafted from cedar wood or bark.
Cavernous native lodges tucked into coves and sheltered inlets were built of rot-resistant cedar. The light, porous wood provided excellent insulation — capturing heat in winter and coolness in summer.
The posts for the post-and-beam construction were often totem poles, particularly at entrances. The roofs were cedar shingled.
Today the word "totem" immediately evokes images of the poles, but totems are literally the representations of the spirits of the creatures depicted. Among the totems are bears, beavers, owls, wolves, frogs, snakes, whales, salmon, ravens, eagles, mythical "Thunderbirds" and human beings. The images of spirit creatures merge and embrace. Many poles recount legends or record family lineage.
Some poles, called "mortuary" poles, contained the ashes of the deceased. Others served as caskets.
The carvers also made elaborate, colorful masks of cedar. Ray demonstrated how one of his masks, a five-foot-long stylized whale complete with fins, has a hinged jaw to serve as a drum. Its deep thumping is amplified in the hollow mask. Groups of whale-masked men would gather on the beach, dance and then wade into the surf. In the water they would doff their masks and cling to them as buoys. The whale figures and the chanting men then lured real whales to shore where the colossal mammals would be trapped.
The native peoples treated all these colorful, carefully, crafted works as art. Often the wood itself would determine how the carver-artist told the story. Knots and cross-grain shape the images.
"You let the wood decide," Ray explained.
Among artistic cedar creations are all matter of bowls and vessels, usually depicting totem figures. The largest bowls were, and still are, used for potlatches, events baffling to acquisitive European traders and, later administrative "Indian" overseers. After European governors seized power, they outlawed potlatches as heathen. The Whites couldn't understand why festivals were held by wealthy families who would vie to see who could give away the most possessions. It was done in a contest for the respect of the people. Why, the white people wondered, would the wealthy reduce themselves to modest means in search of respect?
The answer resided in the abundant "cedar culture" of a rich, spirit-filled world nourished by the ancient cedars of the Pacific Northwest.