With a small ax and carving knife, Port Gamble elder and master carver Gene Jones Sr. deftly removes a 1-foot by 3-foot section of bark from a felled cedar log. He shaves off a small section of the rough bark, revealing a smooth tan inner layer. About an hour later, after more scoring, cutting and carving, he has a bucket for bailing water out of canoes.
Ancestors of Western Washington tribes relied on cedar bark as a resource for making items for everyday use. Today, tribal members continue harvesting and teaching the handicraft to the next generation by making traditional items such as baskets, hats, regalia and tools.
“Typically you harvest when the dogwoods bloom in May and June – when it’s hot but not too hot,” said Marilyn Jones, the Suquamish Tribe’s traditional heritage specialist. “It’s when the pitch is good so the outer bark comes off easily, exposing the inner bark, which is used for weaving.”
After harvest, the cedar strips are laid out to dry for a year before being made into baskets and hats or used in regalia.
The tribe’s forestry manager, David Mills, coordinates the cedar harvestings. Cedar gathering is important to all tribal members, no matter what tribe they are from, he said.
“It provides an opportunity for tribal members to gather materials for traditional means that can be hard to come by otherwise,” he said. “We only get a few times a year to harvest. Any time I have a chance to help the elders or tribal members help gather traditional items, I like to help them out.”
Tribal elder Earlene Abler brought her son, his partner and their kids to the most recent cedar gathering outing near Indianola. The three generations were all new to the harvesting process.
“I want to expose my kids to this part of our culture,” said James Abler. “This is my first experience gathering cedar and I want them to be more involved than I was at their age.”
Earlene Abler’s grandmother was a basket weaver and tried to teach her grandchildren how to weave.
“I was too busy playing when I was a little girl,” Earlene said. “But my younger sister started weaving and she got me started about four years ago but this is my second time out harvesting. I think my grandmother would be proud of me today.”