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As I Remember It: Teachings (Ɂəms tɑɁɑw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder

Root Digging

You learned by watchin’. You were always brought along. So when the older women went root diggin’, you went along – the children went along. So it was by watchin’. Because every step of the way, everything they did around root diggin’ was really important to pay attention. Such as, first of all when you go to a cedar tree, which is where we got our cedar roots from, is to ask permission before you take the roots from that cedar. You just didn’t go and dig around the tree without any thought or consideration for the life in the tree. ’Cause that’s a living thing to our people. The cedar tree is a living thing. And it’s gonna house you. It’s going to give you the materials you need for basket weaving. It’s going to give you material for building a house, the branches itself – so every part of the cedar was used for different things, such as making a rope or mats and cedar hats and just everything!

“’Cause that’s a living thing to our people. The cedar tree is a living thing.”

There was bailers, and this comes from the inner bark of the cedar, or portion of it. So people didn’t just go out and strip a whole tree. When you wanted just the bark for making bailers, you went out and you just took a strip, and that’s what you used, the inner bark. Because you can only do this in the springtime and through the summer. So probably about August, it’s the end of the season for doing that. ’Cause the tree’s not going to give you its bark anymore, because it – bark becomes very tight. So you knew all this. This was talked about when you’re out there: “This is the time we’re going – we’re preparing for this. We’re going to go out and do this now, while the sap is running.”

“Which was way before my time, but I know the story behind it is that you treat in this way. You don’t abuse it. Don’t take any more than you need. It was always about that.”

And it was the same for the roots. Again, you offer prayers to the Creator and thank the Creator, that you’re going to use this tree. So everything from the branches to the bark, the inner bark, and to the tree itself, the inside of the tree itself. And even the core of the tree is used for when you barbecue salmon or smoke salmon. You use that inner core to hold the fish open when you cut it open and you want to hang it. So you need little sticks to keep it open. Years ago, the clothing came from that tree, like, from the inner bark of the cedar was treated until it was so fine it was like cloth that people used to make garments. A cape or a skirt. That and other things, like hide for clothing. Which was way before my time, but I know the story behind it is that you treat in this way. You don’t abuse it. Don’t take any more than you need. It was always about that. And whatever remnants you have, you don’t leave it laying here or there or whatever. You took care of it, and all your shavings, you gather that and you use it for something else, whether it’s to start the fire – you just don’t discard it and leave it laying about. So everything had its place. And that you took care of that.

And people never really overused. They would just move on and go and gather something else. And move on to something else. And by the time they came back around – it’s like when you’re out in the berry fields. You pick through the berry patch in a really thorough, you know, orderly manner. By the time you come back, the berries are ripe again, new berries are ripe, and you pick and leave the semi-ripe ones there, you don’t take everything. You didn’t take everything. The same as when we went to dig roots to make baskets. You don’t dig all the roots around the tree. You just go and you get little bit, what you’re going to need from that tree. And use that as material for your basket. And you go somewhere else.

So, you know, the ladies would go together. And sometimes the men. My grandfather used to come and help my grandmother. ’Cause it’s hard work digging for those roots, so the men would help go and dig the roots. But a lot of women just did it on their own too. They all went as a group of women and did that. And as they’re doing all these things, it was explained to the children – the process, how important it is to thank the tree, to thank the Creator for putting these resources in front of us so that we could gather them and share the resources with nature. So there was all that, almost like a ceremony as you’re entering into the forest, you thank Creator, thank the land. So anyways, you go to dig. You find a nice patch where there’s big cedar trees, and these were first-growth cedar. And sometimes you had to go deep into the woods to find what you’re looking for. And you say, “I’m gonna borrow some of your roots. Allow me to borrow some of your roots.” And those are the words you say, whatever words comes to your mind: “This is what I need to make a basket.” Well, you would say, “čʼɛhčʼɛhɑθɛ č.” That’s pretty much what you would say. It’s like humbling yourself and you honour the tree. And you raise your hands. You always raise your hands to the tree and the Creator. čʼɛhčʼɛhɑθɛ č, which means, “I thank you, I honour you.” So you use those words, those gestures.

And you start from maybe about fifteen feet, twenty feet away from the tree. Otherwise it’d be really hard, stiff – not pliable. And once you get going, if you were in good ground – the ground has to be so good and sandy soil. Or sometimes they prefer to dig where the tree was up on the hill and it looked like coming down the hill would be nice sandy soil, and that was really the best, ’cause the roots were really straight. Otherwise if you’re digging where it’s rough grounds, then you’ll get gnarled roots and twisted and all that. So you had to find the right place to dig. You can’t go out and dig in the backyard. [laughs] And you dug around the tree, and you just didn’t dig in one spot, but you went around the perimeters of the tree. So you gathered those roots and you explained to the children that are around you why you’re doing this thing and what you need to avoid and don’t step over the roots as you’re diggin’. Once the root is exposed, don’t step over it. ’Cause their belief was that if you stepped over the root it’s going to get twisted, and so you really had to pay attention. You go around, if you have to go around the tree or go further away before you get to where you wanna go, but you don’t ever step over the root that’s exposed. So that’s how important it was and how alive it was for our people. And you would just cut the roots to whatever size you wanted. But first, before you’d dig, the first little bits and pieces of roots – the real thin small little pieces that are just, like, attached to the root itself – you will take some of that and tie it around your wrists, tie it around your waist, or around your neck and it’s like a necklace and they believed that brings the bigger roots to come along. It makes it easier. It’s almost like the bigger roots follow the little roots and therefore you will have access to more roots by doing that. And you just don’t take it and cut it and tie it around yourself. You just say, “You’re gonna help me. You’re gonna bring more roots to me.” So that was really important part of the root diggin’.

So when you got those roots and you take them home and you split them right away. You take the bark off it right away. Otherwise it’ll stick and when it dries it’ll be harder to strip. So you take them home and you do that. And it takes several days, several sittings to get it to where you – where it’s usable for your basket? Because you split it one day, split all the roots you got into bigger pieces. Then another day you will sit down and you will fine down the roots. And the third time you go to handle it, you’re going to make it really fine, and it becomes really soft and to the point that now you can use it to weave your basket. So there’s a lengthy process to preparing the roots.

So then you’ll have your long roots, which could be as long as four feet – three to four feet long in length. And the shorter pieces, where maybe there was a knot or whatever and then you had to cut the knot away, you might have ones that are maybe just a foot long. But those are just as important. So when they are all bundled up, as we’ve seen in the pictures, then they’re bundled nicely and they’re put out to dry. They need to be dried, otherwise they’ll get mouldy if they’re damp. ’Cause your roots have to be damp, they have to be wet, actually, when you’re working with them. So you always have water, a basin of water, and you soak your roots in there. So the short ones then are bundled as well as the long ones, and they could be folded in half and bundled that way.

“And they would just be so proud of it and just feel so good to see those roots hanging as their family, and ‘this family’s come to us.’”

And the ladies would say, “Oh, this is the grandpa. This is the long roots. And this is the dad, and this is the mom, and this is the children.” And “Oh! These are the babies!” And the real short ones – so they didn’t throw any of that away because every bit was important. So they would line it up, or hang them on the line to dry as bundled roots drying on the line. And they would just be so proud of it and just feel so good to see those roots hanging as their family, and “this family’s come to us.” So that’s how important the roots were to our people.

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