Elders such as James August selected the cottonwood for the first tree-cutting ceremony on the First Nation’s land in more than a generation. The tree was chosen months earlier, when the elders decided they wanted to renew the community’s tradition of building handcrafted canoes. They searched different locations around their territory in the Shuswap region, an area of immaculate scenery about 85 kilometres northeast of Kamloops in the British Columbia interior. When they reached the town of Scotch Creek, they spotted near the water a tall, stoic cottonwood, a species ideal for canoe making because it hardens when it dries and yet remains light.
It had been more than 35 years since the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band witnessed a tree being ceremoniously brought to the ground. One of the few members of the community who remembers that day is Ralph McBryan, who was a teenager in 1981 when a previous cottonwood was cut down to provide the wood needed to build a canoe. He helped to carve the watercraft, learning alongside his grandfather.
“One of the proudest moments of my life was when I was working on that canoe. I remember clearly that I was aware of my culture and I could see the value of the knowledge of my people being passed down to me,” said McBryan, explaining why the tradition of cutting down a tree was being renewed.
“People would say you didn’t need to cut down a tree because they make fibreglass canoes now. So they would ask, ‘Why do all that work to make a canoe when you can just go buy one at the store?’ But I believe in our heritage and now there’s a big revival of tradition and culture happening,” he said. “For us to revive this, it was incredible.”
The ceremony on January 22 involved elders performing a smudge ceremony for the tree and the event’s attendees. It took a member of the community, a former lumber-industry worker, about 30 minutes to cut down the 200-year-old giant with a chainsaw. The cottonwood fell gracefully, thudding into the snow and dirt with enough force to quake the ground, causing onlookers to hoot. All who watched were encouraged to take a limb that had snapped off from the branches. Those limbs, McBryan said, would honour the tree’s life.