At the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) which Chris and I visited in Whistler B.C., we learned that the Indigenous People of the west coast, the Skwxú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish) Nation and Liĺwat7úl Nation believe they are the land. That is about as close as a connection between land and people that we can get. It is what I see as the essence of the aboriginal attitude to nature. It is very different from the attitude of most Non-Indigenous people. It is my belief that we have a lot to learn from such people.
Josh, our Lil’wat interpreter at the Cultural Centre, explained that the two nations who created the centre at one time shared a village in their joint territory before it was destroyed by volcanic forces. The nations have learned to share rather than fight over it. As a result they recognize each other as family. Again, we have a lot to learn from these people.
They also believe that they learn through stories that teach their values of generosity, humility, and compassion. Frankly this reminded me of one of my favorite passages in the Bible, namely Micah 6:8, where the prophet said, “He has told you, man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” I don’t think religion gets any more profound than this. Or consider when the Prophet Isaiah said, “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, abolish oppression, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” I think such words get at the essential good things about spirituality. The best of religions are invariably complementary, not antagonistic. In fact, I would say, they are fundamentally the same!
Cedar often plays an important role in the ceremonial and spiritual life of many West Coast Indigenous peoples. They even have a creation story about cedar. It is that important to them. As explained by Alice Huang,
“According to the story, there once lived a good man who always gave away his belongings and food to others. The Creator recognized the man’s kindness, and declared that once the man dies, a Red Cedar tree will grow where he is buried, and the tree will continue to help the people. The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island have a similar origin story for Yellow Cedar. According to their stories, Yellow Cedar trees were transformed from three young women running up a mountain. Therefore, Yellow Cedar trees are found on the slopes of subalpine mountains, and contain soft inner bark, like that of woman’s hair.”
In addition to everyday use, which I described in my previous post to this blog, cedar is used for a variety of ceremonial purposes. Families often commissioned a carver to create cedar figures for a potlatch, usually as a welcoming gesture to the guests. Ceremonial dancers’ regalia might include head rings, neck rings, wristlets braided from cedar, as well as cedar masks. I will have more to say about potlatches later in this blog, but for now, we must realize that they were a means for individuals or communities to demonstrate their generosity. Generosity was the sign of greatness to West Coast aboriginal people. It had spiritual value. It was so important that some leaders actually impoverished themselves to demonstrate their generosity. The exact opposite of the attitude of the current American President.
Given the importance of cedar in everyday life, it is clear that cedar also plays an integral role in the spiritual beliefs and practices of coastal First Nations. These beliefs recognize that the cedar tree has its own life and spirit. According to Alice Huang, “Coast Salish and Tlingit shamans often had cedar “spirit assistants” or “guard figures” to protect them.”
The Coast Salish is a group of ethnically and linguistically related Indigenous peoples of the west coast of North America that live in parts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. They are a large loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. The territory claimed by various nations within the group include the northern limit of the Salish Sea (Georgia Strait), on the inside of Vancouver Island including most of the southern part of Vancouver Island, and most of the lower mainland of what is now called British Columbia and much of Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula in what is now called the United States. Major cities now included in this territory are Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle.
Cedar was also widely valued for its healing abilities. Yellow Cedar bark, which has anti-inflammatory properties, was frequently applied as a dressing for wounds, as a tourniquet, or to ward off evil. Many beliefs and taboos are also associated with the cedar tree. For example, a person who killed a tree through improper harvesting would be cursed by other cedar trees. Similarly, some believed a pregnant woman should not braid baskets, lest the umbilical cord would twist around the baby’s neck. As the cedar is a long-lived tree, some Coast Salish groups ensured a long life for their infants by placing the afterbirth in the stump of a large cedar.
As a plant that has ensured the survival of people for thousands of years, cedar has become a powerful symbol of strength and revitalization. The deep respect for cedar is part of a rich tradition that spans thousands of years and continues to be culturally, spiritually, and economically important.
Canoes, often built of cedar, were considered living beings. They had to be blessed before being launched. That was believed to breathe life into the canoe. That is in fact the meaning of spiritual: breathing life. The canoe was considered by the Indigenous people to be a gift from the forest. It allowed them to move through their land and connect to it. Similarly, the Indigenous people considered the bear, and other animals, their kin.
All of this spirituality is part and parcel of the belief of many Indigenous peoples in this region that all of them were deeply connected to the land (environment really) in which they were located and to all life in it and even non-life such as rocks. That is the basis of their spirituality and I would submit the spirituality of all of us.