Keeping the Cedar Bark Gathering Tradition Alive

Suquamish Tribe members Peg Deam and Martha Mabe shoulder backpacks loaded with snacks, small axes, knives and rope, then walk down a logging road near Bremerton.

They peer into the forest filled with hemlock, alders, Douglas fir, ferns and salal. But they’re looking for cedar trees so they can harvest the inner bark for making traditional clothing such as vests, skirts and capes.

After about 10 minutes, the women find a grove of cedars. Delighted with their discovery, Deam approaches one and sizes it up from top to bottom.

“Think I could get a good strip out of this?” she asks.

“Not if I don’t get one bigger,” Mabe said.

Mabe moves on to find her own tree while Deam places a hand on her cedar and closes her eyes, silently asking it for permission to harvest. After a few moments, she opens her eyes, looks up the tree again, then takes off her backpack to go to work.

Using a small axe, Deam makes shallow cuts into the bark just above the trunk. She creates a 6- to 8-inch-wide tab that she’ll use to help strip off a long piece that runs up the tree, leaving behind the wet and smooth surface of the tree’s wood core.

“You have to be skillful with the axe and not harm the wood and the tree,” she said. “You come for the inner bark.”

Deam pulls apart the rough gray outer bark from the golden inner bark. She holds the fresh bark to her nose and inhales.

“It smells like fresh water almost,” she said. “It’s an aroma that is unique to the tree, and experienced only once a year. ”

After Deam packs away her cleaned material, she wraps the remains of the outer bark around the bottom of the tree, so as it decomposes, the nutrients go back into the tree, she said.

The inner bark can be used to make traditional clothing such as vests, skirts and capes.

Basket weavers can use the material immediately, but the bark must be dried for at least three years before it can be used to make clothing.

After drying, the strips are pounded to loosen the fibers to make them soft and easier to weave.

“There is so much to do with this material, it’s amazing what you can do with it,” Deam said. “Our ancestral fishermen used to make twine and rope out of it for whaling.”

Part of harvesting is having respect for the trees, Deam said. Working with the tribe’s forest practices coordinator and ecologist, tribal members regularly and sustainably harvest from selected forests in Kitsap and Jefferson counties.

Deam learned the basics decades ago from tribal elders Martha George (Suquamish) and Bruce Miller (Skokomish), but also spent time studying pictures of her ancestors. Since then, she has developed her own techniques and teaches others who want to learn the practice.

“You have to have that cedar in your blood to use the miraculous material to make it into traditional clothing,” she said.

Mabe had that feeling when Deam started teaching her in 2010.

“It’s in me,” Mabe said. “It just is what I feel and when I was watching and listening to her talk about harvesting, I decided to try it out and it felt comfortable, like home. It’s just what I think I was meant to do.”

“The best time to learn I think is when it’s the person alone and one with the cedar bark, as you are taking it off the tree,” Deam said. “There’s a real solid connection there. That’s exactly what my ancestors did to gather bark and I’m doing the exact same thing.”

Suquamish tribal members Martha Mabe, left, and Peg Deam, right, clean up strips of inner bark they harvested from a grove of cedars near Kingston. Photo: Tiffany Royal