We loved hosting University of Victoria’s Indigenous Language Revitalization students as part of their ethnobotany course! Our goal was to provide an informative day of on-site learning about the carefully tended groves of Culturally Modified Trees (CMTs) on Yukusam. Yukusam is situated in the Johnstone Strait at the south-west gateway to the Great Bear Rainforest and is a place that is rich with life. This island is really a living museum and the culturally shaped trees tell the story of Kwakwaka‘wakw traditional forestry methods that allowed the forest to thrive and provide for generations to follow.
Our day started with a beautiful ride across Johnstone Strait to Blackfish Sound, periodically stopping to take in the sight of some majestic humpback whales breaching together. K’odi met us where we boarded the skiff and stepped foot on the island. We were greeted by anthropologist David Garrick who has devoted his life to studying and recording CMTs on Yukusam. We walked the beautiful forest trail together, observing the incredible abundance of fungi species. We had 18 participants and the Elders that were part of our group were so happy to be out on the land. We soon arrived at the rustic but cozy research station where we gathered to learn the significance of CMT identification and how there is an estimated 10,000 CMTs on the island. Ancient healthy yews and red cedars are found on the island, some over 1000 years old. Bark-stripped CMTs are identified by the way they heal over time and produce a recognizable scar.
During the McKenna-McBride Commission in the early 1900s, it was reported that Hanson Island was abandoned, thus the BC Government assumed jurisdiction. The CMTs are archaeological evidence that Kwakwaka‘wakw families continued to occupy, manage and harvest the forests.
Mike (Sea Wolf Adventures owner and guide) likes to jokingly refer to these groves as his peoples’ ancient department stores that operated as cooperatively managed clothing, food, hardware and lumber departments. When we walk in the forest we look for signs. Finding physical evidence of how the old people lived is a way to reconnect with the land. He remarks, “It is empowering to learn how to identify a CMT because to the untrained eye it may look like a regular tree, and now I travel through the forest differently. When finding a CMT, I get a huge rush of energy just knowing that one of our ancestors was utilizing this tree and taking care of it at the same time. It teaches us today, by following our ancestors footsteps, to manage our forests and only take what we need.”
I remember when Mike first learned the art of identifying culturally shaped trees. He had found a portal to his ancestors and he came home energized on so many levels. He loves to share this with others and we are excited to make some future trips to Yukusam.
Thank you to University of Victoria, North Island College, David Garrick, Indigenous Education students (our language warriors), ‘Namgis, Mamalilikala and ɬawit’sis Nations!