Western red cedar: the tree used for the NLM healing totem

In May, Jewell Praying Wolf James, head carver of the House of Tears carvers of the Lummi Nation, led a small band of Lummi into the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, located in the North Cascade Mountain Range of western Washington, to find a western red cedar (Thuja plicata). The tree will be the totem pole to be raised in October within the NLM herb garden as a focal point of the Library’s upcoming Native Voices exhibition.

This same forest also produced the trees that became the healing totems placed after 9/11 in: Sterling Forest, northwest of New York City, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC’s Historic Congressional Cemetery.

Before taking the tree, James led his group in a ceremonial prayer of reverence, respect and gratitude. Lummi traditions underscore that working with western red cedar’s wood teaches patience and humility.

A group of people, some with bright shawls, face a fallen tree with their hands raised

Jewell James and others bless a fallen tree that will be carved

Western red cedar is a slow growing evergreen that typically reaches 130-200 feet in the wild. Impressively, some old-growth trees top 230 feet and are more than 1000 years old.  The Western red cedar is ideal for totem carving. The tree’s wood repels fungus and insects, is slow to rot, and does not easily twist or warp. Since a Western red cedar contains no pitch or resin, it is easier to paint or stain.

Known as the “Tree of Life,” for centuries the Lummi and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest have fashioned rope, clothing, and baskets from the western red cedar’s reddish brown bark, and shaped its lightweight, water-resistant logs into canoes, masks, long houses, and totem poles.

In selecting for a suitable totem, Jewell James searches for old-growth cedars that are at least five feet around at the base. Today, these mostly come from hillsides that were inaccessible to clear-cutting by early loggers. Unlike the knotty, short-fibered wood from second-growth trees found in low-lying areas, wood from Western red cedar is solid to the core, has few knots as well as a long, straight grain ideal for carving.

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