Native American Traditions and Trees  LbNA # 8883 (ARCHIVED)

Placed DateJun 26 2004
LocationMansfield, CT
Planted ByRush Gatherer    
Found By Bell Lady
Last Found Nov 6 2004
Hike Distance?

Native American Traditions and Trees

UPDATE: Series Retired 11-7-04

These boxes are being retired/removed for repair/relocation. Two boxes were carried off by animals in only a few months time. Chuck and Molly miraculously recovered the Spruce Box, however, the Tamarack box was completely destroyed. Due to every critter's curiosity, this will forever remind me to keep tempting (food) scents away from boxes and always cover the boxes with heavy objects.

This series of five letterboxes explores a few of the many
Native American traditions and uses of common trees.
Placed by The Dawnlanders; Rush Gatherer and Powwow Dancer
June 26, 2004

An Ojibwe story of Winabojo explains the distinctive markings of the birch tree.

Long ago, a spirit-boy was born among the Ojibwe people, his name was Winabojo. Winabojo was raised by his grandmother, and helped her. He dug wild potatoes, picked berries and brought her fish he caught in Barrows pond. As Winabojo grew, he became larger and stronger and though some people were frightened of his mysterious powers, he taught the Ojibwe people how to live in the natural world through his actions and lessons.

Hoping to provide well for his village, one day Winabojo asked his grandmother what was the biggest fish in the pond by their village. She replied that there was an enormous fish that lived by a rock ledge but it was very powerful and would harm Winabojo. No one could kill the fish because no one could get down there where it lived.

Winabojo thought about how to hunt this fish, and he knew that he would need the best hunting equipment. He would need to make the strongest bow and arrows. Before he set out, he asked his grandmother if there were any birds whose feathers could be put on the arrows to make them more effective. She told Winabojo the only feathers strong enough come from a bird that lives in the sky, at the opening of the clouds. One would have to go there to get these feathers.

Winabojo thought the best path to take to the nest of the Thunderbirds would be the one named Road Runner. He started outward from his village northward on this trail over foot bridges of wood, in these wet wooded areas he’d often come to gather the tubers from the delicate three-leaved vine called hog peanut (Amphicarpase monica). A little further up the slope in drier areas, he’d dig the roots of Indian Cucumber (Medeola virginica) and saw their tiers of thin whorled leaves and little white berries. He reached the top of the hill where Road Runner intersected with the Nipmuck trail, and decided he’d have to head north into Nipmuck territory to find the cliffs of the Thunderbirds.

He stayed on this trail as it dipped down the valley away from his village. Coming to a brook, he crossed over on a bridge, and went left following the Nipmuck trail, keeping the brook on his left. He noticed Witch Hazel trees growing here along the brook, with their low canopies of broad leaves over the trail. He stopped here to carve some arrow shafts from this strong straight wood, knowing he’d need them later to fix the feathers to. Winabojo finished shaving and straightening the arrow shafts and continued up the Nipmuc trail. He knew he was close because the trail became narrow and rocky along the rugged slope of the valley. Finally he reached a little rock-outcrop on the right of the trail where only tufts of grass and small plants could get a foot-hold.

As Winabojo was no ordinary man, this seeming small cliff opposite the brook was no ordinary rock. As Winabojo stopped and stared at it, the cliff grew and grew! He left his arrow shafts there on the trail, and began to climb the strange cliff, which seemed to grow the higher he climbed it. He remembered to warn everyone at the village not to climb here! Finally at the summit, he came to the opening in the clouds and saw the nest he’d been seeking and the huge Thunderbirds sitting with their babies.

Winabojo quickly turned himself into a rabbit so the Thunderbirds would bring him to their nest for their babies to play with. Winnabojo stayed in the nest for a long time; the babies were cruel to him and tossed him around. But as soon as the Thunderbirds went away to hunt for more food, Winabojo turned back to a boy, pulled the feathers from the baby thunderbirds, and jumped from the high nest with the prized feathers.

If he’d not been Manido, a powerful spirit-man, surely he would have been killed in the fall. He fell back onto the trail, and was knocked unconscious. When he awoke he realized the Thunderbirds had returned to their nest, and they were very angry for the plight of their babies. The enraged Thunderbirds flew after Winabojo!! Thunder rolled from their beaks and lightning flashed from their eyes.

Winabojo ran for his life, snatching up his arrow shafts and clutching his feathers. He ran a short ways further up the trail until he came to another trail that switched back to the right, away from the brook. Running over the Pine Ridge, he ran past stone walls and along the narrow trail through low thickets of juniper of rose bushes. Though the trail began to go downhill, he soon grew so tired he began to fear he would be caught.

The trail became a little wetter and slippery, and Winabojo ran through the remains of a stone wall. Just as the Thunderbirds were reaching for him with their enormous claws, something whitish caught the eye of Winabojo, just off the trail to the left. Two white paper birch trees, the only two in sight. Knowing this was it, he ran down a faint deer trail between the two trees, only about 20 steps and saw the place to hide. Near the corner of an old stone wall on the right of the deer trail, inside an old fallen birch that was hollow inside. Winabojo crept into the hollow in the nick of time.

Winabojo had fled to a ‘king child’ of the Thunderbirds. They could not reach Winabojo through the birch bark as the tree was their own child, and he had fled to it for protection! Winabojo was safe. After the Thunderbirds went away, Winabojo proclaimed that the birch tree would forever protect and benefit the human race. You can still see the short marks on the birch tree made by Winabojo to commemorate the sharp claws of the Thunderbirds which almost killed him. The Thunderbird parents put "pictures" of their baby birds with out-stretched wings into the birch bark so the sacrifice of their children would always be remembered.

Winabojo has blessed the Birch (Betula species) for the good of the human race. And this is why lightning never strikes the birch tree, and why anything wrapped in the bark will not decay. Many Native Americans traditionally honor this tree by offering a gift, such as tobacco, when they use this tree, in exchange for protection during the arduous task of harvesting it’s bark.

Many New England tribes used the bark of White or Paper Birch for many purposes. Large bark sheets were stripped from the tree in late spring to use as house coverings or to build canoes. Smaller pieces of bark were cut into patterns and used to make dishes and utensils, including seamless maple sap collecting dishes and maple sugar storage containers (makaks). The bark was also cut and folded to make baskets, fans and even tinder to fish by torchlight from canoes. Folding and biting single thin layers of the paper produced dental pictographs, or birch bark transparencies, that could be used for beadwork designs and patterns for other decorations. The paper, scroll like qualities of thin sheets of the white birch made it an ideal traditional medium for Ojibwe Elders to record their teachings.

Winnabojo thought of the paper birch’s cousins, the Yellow birch (B. alleghaniensis) and Black or Sweet birch (B. Nigra), the twigs of which have a distinct wintergreen fragrance. Yellow birch sap can be collected and boiled down to a sweet syrup. The wintergreen flavor is stronger in Black birch, the twigs, larger roots, and red inner bark can be steeped into a tea, and the inner bark can be boiled or ground into a flour. Traditionally the Ojibwe made a medicine from Black and White birch (B. papyrifera) for stomach pain.

Winabojo came out of the birch bark, still holding the thunderbird feathers and arrow shafts he’d carved in his arms. He needed something to bundle these things up with, so none would be lost on his way back to the village. He continued down from Pine Ridge and came to a junction with Juniper and Tamarack. He decided to go straight on Tamarack because he knew the tree would have roots to weave a bag to hold all his gear.

It was a little wet here as he heading southeast. Winabojo crossed over little footbridges and stones, through a stone wall and over a large fallen log, taking his time now that the danger was over. There were more rose bushes here that grabbed at him from the narrow trail, but he knew his journey would be worth it. He noticed some tall conifers and a stone wall up on the slope to his right, and soon he crossed through a stone wall that was connected to the one he’d seen. Winabojo knew that is where to go to find Tamarack (Larix laricina). He got off the trail here and walked up the slope along the stone wall, only about 20 steps. On the other side of the stone wall he saw a large boulder with a few Tamarack trees growing around it. He went to the boulder and that is where he stopped to dig some tamarack roots, and while he dug a few roots he thought of all the wonderful gifts the Tamarack tree has to offer.

Other common names for this tree are Eastern Larch, American Larch, Red Larch, Black Larch, takmahak and Hackmatack, which is an Abenaki word for ‘wood used for snowshoes’. Though the tamarack tree resembles other evergreens, it is actually a deciduous conifer which sheds it’s needles every fall. Winabojo dug the roots and stripped them of their bark. He boiled the tamarack roots to make them pliable, and sat and twined a traditional bag. While he twined he thought of the other uses for Tamarack. Large tamarack roots stripped of their bark are also used to sew the edges of canoes and the Iroquois have used tamarack bark for tanning).

The Cree have made traditional use of the tamarack, called ‘wachinakin’ or ‘wageenakin’, for millenia. In addition to it’s medicinal uses, the Cree (or Eeyou) use parts of the tamarack tree for making toboggans, snow shoes, canoes and even firewood. But, perhaps the most well-known use is the elegant and lifelike goose hunting decoy made by the Cree from tamarack twigs. The beauty and workmanship in these tamarack twig goose decoys is an outcome of the long interrelationship and mutual respect between the Cree people and the migratory flocks of geese. Geese and other waterfowl are an extremely important spring food source to the Cree. The Cree hunters, likewise, are beneficial to these migratory birds by traditionally keeping their populations within the sustainable limits of the surrounding environment. Beginning as an aid in hunting some contemporary Cree craftspeople have developed the twig decoy making into remarkable art.

His Tamarack twined bag finished, and his arrow shafts and feathers stored, Winabojo continued along on the Tamarack path, past more white birches on the right, and continuing along through more juniper bushes. He came to a Marsh path and decided to go down that way, leaving Tamarack behind. Winabojo was careful going down the steep path that switched back and forth through stone walls. He thought about the bow he still needed to make, and headed down the Marsh path.

Soon the trail leveled out and Winabojo came to grove of Spruce (Picea species) on the right. This is where he could stop to dig some long strong spruce roots to use for his archer’s bow. He looked deep inside the grove, in the center, and saw a small stump no more than two feet high and went to it. This gave him enough headroom to work, and he noticed a small rock next to the stump, a good place to leave his bag while he selected just the right root. Spruce trees have a root system that mirrors the above ground part of the trees. Many of the long, slender, even roots grow very close to the ground surface, tapering only from 1 inch to 1/8 inch in diameter over a span of six feet.

Note August 27th, 2004: Winabojo has had difficulty here in the spruce grove with raccons that are very strong and carry away important things that had been cached for the future. He is reminded that he need to place heavy stones carefully over the storage cache so it will be here for future generations. (Winabojo is very thankful to a certain letterboxing angel called Chuck for making this box possible).

Winabojo thought the strong roots of Black Spruce make sturdy lashings, and they are ideal for sewing and lacing bark containers, canoes and other items. He poked a few inches into the ground around the base of a spruce tree, and located a root. He pulled, following the root to its end several yards from the tree. Winabojo stripped the root of it’s bark using a forked stick. If he were going to use it to sew containers, he might split it down it’s length, into finer lacing Later he could soaked the root in warm water, or heat it over a fire to rejuvenate the sap and making it flexible again. Gathering one or two roots from a live tree normally doesn't threaten the life of the tree. Over-harvesting roots from a single tree will kill it. Roots can also be gathered, with little loss of workability, from dead or fallen spruces.

Picking up his bag and putting the coiled spruce root in it, Winabojo continued south along the Marsh, until he came upon a strangely wide flat path, and thought it must be the work of the newcomers. Winabojo was careful to cross but did not pause here, and instead located a small unnamed trail on the opposite side, that headed up a slope. Relieved that he came upon a the intersection with a trail he recognized, he knew he was headed back to his village. At the intersection he headed to his right in a westerly direction, following his Heritage home.

Winabojo was nearly home when he realized he had yet to carve a strong bow. After a while of he came to a large four way intersection where huge Oaks formed an open shady canopy high over head. Oak (Quercus species) would be the wood he would use to carve his bow. Oak is strong, and would split along it’s growth rings. So he set his twined bag down on the flat rock at the base of the huge oak just off the left of the trail from the direction he’d come.

While he fashioned his bow, shaving it carefully along it’s natural growth layers, Winabojo remembered the wood from oak is also carved to make awls, corn pounding mortars, and other tools. Oak bark was used in making some Iroquois canoes. In later times basket splints were made of oak because of the toughness and durability of the wood. Inner bark of the Bur oak was used in Ojibwe red and black dye recipes. Black oak is also known as Dyer's Oak, as the orange inner bark produces strong dye.

The acorns from Oaks have also long been a staple food for Native Americans, although their preparation is lime consuming and laborious, traditionally hulled and ground to a flour in stone mortars. White (Q. alba) oak acorns are the most palatable, boiling or soaking in water helps remove bitterness (and toxicity) from the acorns of Red (Q. Rubra) and Black (Q. velutina) Oak species. Medicinal uses of the oak include a tea from the bark for diarrhea, and another tea from the inner bark of Red or Bur (Q. macrocarpa) oak to relieve heart symptoms. Because the bark of white oak contains tannin, an astringent, it can be applied to insect bites.

His bow complete, he picked up his bag and looked at the intersection of the trails from the direction he’d come. Straight ahead would bring him back to his village past Barrows Pond, but that way was often wet, and the beavers build dams bringing the water too close to the trail. So he went right instead, down the winter Ski trail. It was a bit longer, but would bring him buy the sugar bush camp of his family, where they collect sugar maple sap every spring.

Winabojo went down the hill and walked along the trail that looped slowly to his left towards the pond. Coming up a rise, there are many maple trees of all sizes all around. Winabojo spied some maples at the summit of the small hill on his right. He remembered that he still needed to fasten the feathers of the thunderbirds to his arrow shafts, and attach the string to the bow. A good place to stop and rest, would be the top of the little hill on the right, where there was an old wide stone enclosure, more work of the newcomers. He stood in the center of the four stone walls, and admired the huge sugar maples surrounding him on all sides. Winabojo put his bag down on the stones near the large two fingered maple tree at the south end of the enclosure.

While fletching his arrows and stringing his bow, he remembered the sweet times of sugar bush camp, and the wonderful uses of the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). This maple has more rounded lobes than the Red Maple's sharply pointed leaves. Perhaps the best known and most delicious Native American use for any tree is maple syrup. Sugar maple sap is traditionally collected in the spring starting in mid March. Holes are made upward into the tree into which the tap is secured. A seamless bark container was placed under the tap to collect the sap. After hours of boiling, the resulting syrup and sugar was stored in more fancy decorated birch bark containers called Makaks. In addition to also being a strong wood for carving, medicinal uses of maple include a tea from the inner bark for coughs while maple syrup is also believed to be a liver and kidney cleanser.

His hunting gear assembled, Winabojo returned to the Ski trail and headed on to Barrows Pond. With his arrows guided by the feathers of the Thunderbirds, he was able to kill the great fish that lived under the rock ledge. His journey was rewarded and he continued along Barrows Pond back to his village where he started.

The Legend of "Winabojo and the Birch Tree" is adapted from a story in How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine and Crafts, by Frances Densmore. Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1974.

Note: You will have to discover the starting point for this series, the names of paths and waters may help you. The series takes about an hour and a half, and followed closely will bring you back to your starting point. The trails and little bridges may be slippery when it's wet or humid out. The trail does get a little steep in places, but is not dangerous in any way outside of a few prickery rose bushes and a little poison ivy in places.