When This Tree Falls In a BC Forest, Everyone Watches

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Shuswap tree-cutting ceremony is a fascinating once-in-a-generation event

James August spent one hour on a momentous Sunday morning alone with a tree. He stood in the January cold touching the bark of the 37-metre (120-foot) cottonwood that had spent all of its years on the property of the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band.

Elders such as August selected the cottonwood for the first tree-cutting ceremony on the First Nation’s land in more than a generation. The tree was chosen months earlier, when the elders decided they wanted to renew the community’s tradition of building handcrafted canoes. They searched different locations around their territory in the Shuswap region, an area of immaculate scenery about 85 kilometres (53 miles) northeast of Kamloops in the British Columbia interior. When they reached the town of Scotch Creek, they spotted near the water a tall, stoic cottonwood, a species ideal for canoe making because it hardens when it dries and yet remains light.

Cottonwood tree on the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band property, located in Scotch Creek in BC's Thompson Okanagan.

A cottonwood on the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band property. Photo: Adrian Brijbassi

“When I touched it and when you get that close to it you can feel it beating,” August told members of the community and those visitors who were invited to the ceremony about his time with the tree. He spoke with tears in his eyes as he recalled his experience communing with it. “I felt sad. I knew something would be ending, but at the same time as it was ending, there was going to be a new beginning.”

It had been more than 35 years since the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band witnessed a tree being ceremoniously brought to the ground. One of the few members of the community who remembers that day is Ralph McBryan, who was a teenager in 1981 when a previous cottonwood was cut down to provide the wood needed to build a canoe. He helped to carve the watercraft, learning alongside his grandfather.

Elder Ernie Phillip drums in front of the cottonwood tree, near the town of Scotch Creek in BC's Shuswap.

Elder Ernie Phillip drums in front of the cottonwood tree, near the town of Scotch Creek. Photo: Adrian Brijbassi

“One of the proudest moments of my life was when I was working on that canoe. I remember clearly that I was aware of my culture and I could see the value of the knowledge of my people being passed down to me,” said McBryan, explaining why the tradition of cutting down a tree was being renewed.

“People would say you didn’t need to cut down a tree because they make fibreglass canoes now. So they would ask, ‘Why do all that work to make a canoe when you can just go buy one at the store?’ But I believe in our heritage and now there’s a big revival of tradition and culture happening,” he said. “For us to revive this, it was incredible.”

The ceremony on January 22 involved elders performing a smudge ceremony for the tree and the event’s attendees. It took a member of the community, a former lumber-industry worker, about 30 minutes to cut down the 200-year-old giant with a chainsaw. The cottonwood fell gracefully, thudding into the snow and dirt with enough force to quake the ground, causing onlookers to hoot. All who watched were encouraged to take a limb that had snapped off from the branches. Those limbs, McBryan said, would honour the tree’s life.

Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band's tree-cutting ceremony, near Scotch Creek.

Barney Tomma takes a breather during the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band’s tree-cutting ceremony. Photo: Adrian Brijbassi

For the first few months of 2017, the tree will sit in the parking lot at Quaaout Lodge, a luxury lakefront resort owned by the First Nation. Once the tree has dried, Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band members will carve two canoes out of it. Those canoes will be used to traverse the lakes and rivers, retracing ancestral routes and introducing travellers to this part of the province that is exquisite with its snow-capped peaks, sensational fishing and wildlife viewing. And, of course, rich with Aboriginal culture, too.

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