Thursday, August 26, 2010


Cortes Island Museum
replicas done by Hillary Stewart
for the cover of her book 'Cedar'.

Recently, I was on Cortes Island and we stopped in to see the museum. Actually, we went there twice as it was so interesting. A small museum but it packs in a lot. Even the surrounding grounds are interesting, planted with heritage flowers, fruit trees and other plants from various locations on the Island. 

At one end of the room is a beautifully crafted display case with aboriginal artifacts in the case or in drawers that pull out. In these drawers were these replicas....I hesitate to use that word as it implies they are not real. They are real, just not original artifacts but these are made by Hilary Stewart, the hands-on anthropological author of the book Cedar: Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians and were made for the cover shot of that book. When I look at them, I am amazed and in awe of how carefully she studied the techniques in order to replicate them and then draw so carefully detailed drawings so that others can learn from her book. And take a close look at the rope samples marked 'woven' (they are not woven) from cedar bark. They are SPUN as in spin as in twisting fibre, as in: 
From the verb spin: to make (yarn) by drawing out, twisting, and winding fibers. 
Notice how the bark has been shredded by pounding and then SPUN.

Cedar contains plicatic acid, an irritant than acts like a natural insecticide but can also cause skin irritation (and lung issues in people who constantly work with cedar sawdust). Many garments were made of spun cedar as was rope, line, and cable. Perhaps the bark does not contain the acid or perhaps it only effects a bit, as First Nations wore and worked with cedar, their tree of life constantly. Cedar provided clothing, housing and transportation. It was so important, it became part of the culture, being used to decorate people and canoes, and boughs of cedar are used to brush you in a cleansing ceremony. As Crisca Bierwert explains in the opening pages of her book Brushed by Cedar, Living by the River Coast Salish Figures of Power,:
Salish cleansing ceremonies and honorings include cedar boughs.  Long ago, people swept the packed-earth floors of their houses with long cedar branches, and today people still use them to add protection at the apertures of homes.  For clarity of mind and heart, a brushing of cedar takes away the anguish of hurtful action, or of loss, and lifts the anxieties of an uncertain future.  The painful feeling drizzles out of a person like the tingling wakening from numbness, like a minor electrical storm, like tiny quills spiralling out of the body.  I cannot explain this, but I have experienced it.  And while this brushing does not seem to have the ability to change the world, it does invite transformation.
It helped transform me. 

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