Grand Ronde and N8tive Club Engage in Cedar Pull at Sanctuary

by Ali Berman, Communications and Marketing Director

There’s a common myth, one that’s perpetuated by the environmental movement, that people and the natural world are separate. That what many call “wilderness” is land that’s never been touched by people. The underlying assumption that comes from this myth is that people are intruders on the landscape, instead of part of an integral and ongoing relationship with forests, wetlands, mountains, ocean, and desert.

Teenager holding onto bark from cedar tree and pulling with others helping

In February, as we walked around the Bird Alliance of Oregon Wildlife Sanctuary with staff from the Cultural Resources Department of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde—David Harrelson, Greg Archuleta, Jesse Norton, and Annaliese Ramthun—the fallacy of this myth came up again and again. Whether Greg was looking at hazel plants and sharing how Willamette Valley Tribes work with them to inspire new growth that’s later used in basketry, or talking about the extensive relationship with first foods like red huckleberry, the deep and long-standing relationship between people and the wild was everywhere.

It was from this conversation that an idea was born: to help educate the public about the thousands-year-old relationship between Tribes and land, we would partner on a cedar pull at the Wildlife Sanctuary. What’s a cedar pull? A long strip of bark is expertly removed from the trunk of a western red cedar, the outer bark is separated by knife, leaving the cambium layer (the layer just inside the bark), and this inner layer is wrapped to dry and set for a year before being made into tools and art, like baskets, mats, and headpieces.

Greg Archuleta saw the opportunity to make another connection: turn it into a hands-on learning opportunity for kids in the N8tive Club at Whitfield Middle School in Beaverton. In late May, an optimal time for the health of the tree to do a cedar pull, six students came out to the sanctuary with Gary Westley, Title VI American Indian/Alaska Native Program Coordinator. Greg and Gary showed the students what to look for when selecting a tree, the cultural importance of offering thanks, how to do the pull, and how to then clean and treat the cambium. Once the strip of bark was down, the students were laser focused. They worked as a team for more than an hour, practicing their knife skills and learning to work the bark so only the inner layer remained. A year from now, once the cambium has dried, those same kids will return and learn to make tools from the material they harvested.

“Gifting our students the opportunity to connect with land through the traditional lifeways practice of ‘pulling cedar’ provided them with a more meaningful understanding and respect for the landscape,” shared Gary Westley, staff lead for the N8tive Club. “Invoking a more profound respect for the material used to make traditional items for ceremony and everyday usage. Reinforcing positive self-images of what it means to be an indigenous person. Cultural practices are healing, and allowing tribal students to gather medicines and plant materials is a part of reconciling for years of government-forced assimilation policies and broken treaties.”

As you may remember, we’re actively working on reimagining all our signage and interpretive displays around the wildlife sanctuary. The cedar pull is a part of that effort. We’re in the process of working with the Grand Ronde to create an indoor/outdoor exhibit about the relationship between Tribes and the western red cedar, a tree of significant cultural importance. Since the exhibit will likely be ready before the cambium has set, David and Greg have generously offered to loan us an example to use in the exhibit in the interim.

“It is always great to partner with organizations like the Bird Alliance of Oregon to share that our cultural traditions are still living and to get the opportunity to connect to our Ancestral places,” shared Greg. “It is a great experience to see the native youth practice tribal traditions.”

We’re grateful to Greg, and the entire Cultural Resources department at the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, for all their support, and to the N8tive Club for all their efforts to both learn and contribute to the project. We can’t wait to see the final result next spring.