British Columbia

First Nations carver laments loss of western red cedars

Some western red cedar trees are struggling to survive after repeated periods of drought in B.C. and as one Vancouver-based First Nations carver explains, if the tree disappears forever it will be detrimental to Indigenous art and culture.

Tree is an 'extension of the culture,' says Timiskaming carver David Robinson

Temiskaming carver Dave Robinson posing with western red cedar that he is working with at the University of British Columbia. (Submitted/Dave Robinson)

If the day were to come when western red cedar no longer existed, it would be "detrimental" to First Nations people, says Timiskaming First Nation carver Dave Robinson.

Some of the trees, which are commonly found in coastal B.C. and the Canadian Rockies, are struggling to survive after repeated periods of drought.

Experts say they could vanish entirely from areas with shallow, dry, rocky soil if current climate patterns continue.

Robinson is a resident carver at the University of British Columbia and is currently working on a thesis project that includes a western red cedar sculpture.

He spoke with CBC's The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn about the integral role the tree plays in Indigenous culture and how that culture would adapt if the trees disappear forever.

'In that tree is the history'

Robinson is from the Timiskaming First Nation in northwestern Quebec and currently carves on UBC campus as an artist-in-residence.

He said he is fortunate to work on Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Coast Salish territory, where the western red cedar is "an extension of the culture".

A close-up of western red cedar wood salvaged from land near the University of British Columbia farm. (Bridgette Watson)

Cedar is used by many British Columbian First Nations for carving, clothing and medicinal and ceremonial purposes.

Robinson also learns about the local area by working with local cedar. The wood contains historical records that Robinson uncovers as he carves, such as evidence of past fires.

"In that tree is the history," said Robinson, "I'm blessed to be able to see that as I chop into the trees."

Robinson said he thinks about the impacts of climate change while he works outside with wood, particularly during the last few summers which he felt were much warmer than past years. 

Those hours carving are also a time for Robinson to consider how the health of the ecosystem is "directly connected to the human beings that exist in it" and he is optimistic that humans can care for and "provide a stewardship to the land."

"We're all in this together and we look forward to how we can live in a good way with the environment," he said.

Dave Robinson dropped by the CBC Vancouver studios to talk about the implications of losing western red cedar trees in B.C. (Bridgette Watson)

But if the time comes when cedar trees no longer exist, Robinson said Indigenous cultures will withstand the loss.

"We are resilient and adaptable and the culture will continue," he said.

Vancouver-based Timiskaming First Nation carver Dave Robinson weighs in on what the loss of Western red cedar trees means to Indigenous art and culture. 6:45

The Early Edition