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Culturally Modified Trees in the ZHA

Culturally Modified Trees

This part of the ZHA website is dedicated to information about the culturally modified trees (CMTs) here in the Zapata Subdivision. Each month will feature a new entry offering additional information, and expanding on what is written here. All entries will remain available to readers.

November, 2022
Copyright Anne deForrest Ketchin, PhD

Hello and Welcome!

Culturally modified tree is an archaeological term for trees modified in certain ways by humans, for many spiritual and practical reasons. As an archaeological term, it refers to trees modified in the past. However, the practice is still very important to many Indigenous cultures who, today, live on Reservations all over the world.

Tree modification has been practiced by these First Peoples on all continents (and many islands) with trees. An exception is Antarctica…… No trees. Oral histories, linguistic research, and fossils suggest the practice is thousands of years old.

Image of a Culturally Modified Tree (CMT)
A Ponderosa pine tree which has had a portion of it’s bark peeled away by Native Americans.

Around fifty culturally modified Ponderosa Pine live among us in the Zapata Subdivision. Those here are similar in age and appearance to the CMTs in Indian Grove in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. When applied to the trees in the ZHA and the Dunes Park, CMT refers to the work of certain American Indian cultures before and during European colonization and settlement. (Some were modified as late as the early 1900’s.) Through their oral histories, these American Indian cultures trace their belonging here for thousands of years. They are the three Ute Tribes, Tewa speaking Pueblo groups of the Northern Rio Grande in New Mexico, and the Jicarilla Apache People of northern New Mexico.

You may hear the term “Peel Tree”, because the most obvious human modification is the removal of a section of the tough and thick outer bark. The “peel”. The care and skill evident in the modifications show just how knowledgeable these First Peoples were, and are, about trees, and forestry in general. The peels are intentionally shaped, carefully done so as not to harm the tree. They are unlike lightning strikes, road work damage, animal chews and claw marks, or splits in the outer bark due to weather.

Why peel a tree?

Each specific culture has its own reasons for peeling a tree. Generally reasons are both practical and spiritual. For most ZHA readers,  practical purposes seem like a separate category from spiritual purposes. This is not the case for the cultures who made CMTs. Peels were (and where still practiced, are) made during spiritual ceremonies, whether primarily for food (or for other raw materials), or for spiritual reasons. Prayers sung and thought were “put into” the tree.

Practical — Removal of a section of the outer bark allows access to the cambium, the growing part of the tree. This thin layer carries the nutritious juices and other essentials from root to crown (xylem) and crown to root (the phloem). Next inside the tree, after the cambium, are layers of sapwood, and beyond that in the center, the “heart” wood, or core wood. The cambium is nutritious to humans and other animals, not just to the tree! It can be prepared in many ways as food, and in come cases, as medicines. The tough outer bark is not wasted. It, the sapwood and core wood are useful for shelter, fire starter, and cradle boards and lots more.

Spiritual — In general, the spiritual reasons for peeling a tree include communication with spiritual realms, healing, commemoration of important people, deaths, births, prophecies, communication with members of one’s own Tribe as well as other Tribes, and more.

How to visit a CMT — Each CMT could be understood as a prayer reservoir. Please keep this in mind as you approach and visit one. Please treat the tree and its surroundings as you would want your personal special place treated.

“Tune in” monthly for entries expanding on each point in this summary. Also, look for notice of opening in the spring of the CMT educational site, sponsored by the ZHA Board.

Let’s Talk!Join the discussion about CMTs on our forum