Klahoose Arborglyph

Klahoose Arborglyph Ceremony. Source: Klahoose First Nation.

Klahoose Arborglyph Ceremony. Source: Klahoose First Nation.

There has been a mini-flurry of new arborglyphs found in BC – well two of them –  but they are extraordinarily rare.  First up for this blog is the example above, which comes from Klahoose First Nation territory, roughly around Toba Inlet in the extreme NE corner of the Salish Sea (map).  This human face was carved into a tree some time in the 19th century.  It’s in rather stunning condition, setting aside the cut block it finds itself in.  Risk of blowdown is probably why, after appropriate ceremony, it has been moved to the Klahoose offices at T’oq (Squirrel Cove).  As the page describes:

The Klahoose Cultural Leader Norman Harry Sr. and a Tla’amin Cultural Leader Erik Blaney witnessed and performed a ceremony to ensure cultural protocol was observed. The heartfelt moments before the tree was harvested was both moving and surreal on that snowy winter Friday. Needless to say that the emotional event was a historical moment for those who witnessed.

I heard about this a few months ago but without permission I didn’t want to post the pictures I was kindly sent by several people.  Now that the Klahoose have created a page for it, we can all see this remarkable find.  It’s really moving to see the face being swallowed by the living centuries of healing lobes.

Such carved trees are rare in BC – and they transcend their general site type “Culturally Modified Tree”, about which many archaeologists express a certain weariness.  There is a book on the subject by Gitxsan forester and artists Michael Blackstock entitled “Faces in the Forest: First Nations Art Created on Living Trees”. Blackstock appears to be adding to the inventory of these features!

So what are these masked trees about?  Well, this no doubt varies according to place and age and ethnicity.  I doubt there is a single reason why these were carved. Blackstock is quoted in this article (PDF) by Shauna McRanor:

“Everyone knows each others boundaries and [Olive Mulwain,a Gitxsan elder] says they are called ‘Anliit’iisxw’ (blazing mark or post marking boundary of a territory) . “When those responsible for drawing or carving the information are commissioned by the chiefs to “communicate ownership of important trails or territory” that are recounted in oral records- the adaawk these material objects may be considered to function in much the same way as totem poles. Mary Johnson, a Gitxsan hereditary chief of the House of Antgulilbix, has explained, through the retelling of an ancient adaawk, the relationship between oral land records, dendroglyphs, and the feast system: during a potlatch held long ago, the chiefs decided to compensate a murder victim’s house with territory that belonged to the offender’s lineage, and therefore along the adjusted boundary, a tree was incised with the matrilineal crest of the land’s new owners to manifest materially this authoritative agree- ment. Since it is important that such a reliable boundary marker endure “until the end of the Blackstock thought it conceivable that “the image would be re-carved as the original tree carving rotted,”52a practice that would resemble the preservation of a disintegrating totem pole through its replacement with an authentic copy. Thus, if, as it seems, both the controlled making and keeping of these material records are considered juridically consequential as confirmation of a transaction-that is, their physical form is required as evidence of the creation, maintenance, alteration, or termination of a legal relationship between persons-it would allow them to be classified, like totem poles, as probative archival documents of land tenure.53

But for the Klahoose, it may be an entirely different story.

These features have come up before on the blog – the mosquito man of Calvert Island of course, which I tried to pin on Dan Leen, but some of the comments dispute that.  And if you look in the comments on this old post, you’ll see a good discussion takes place and leads to, among other things, the image below from the Yukon, on which more information can be found here.

Also, I remind readers of the pedantic point these things should be called dendroglyphs, since aborglyph is a hybrid latin-greek formulation. And, Michael Blackstock’s book, which started as a UNBC thesis, is available through many University libraries as an e-book.

This mask, carved in a tree on a trading trail near what is now the Haines Highway near the Yukon-British Columbia border, marked the northern boundary of Tlingit territory. Source: Yukon Government, click to view.

“This mask, carved in a tree on a trading trail near what is now the Haines Highway near the Yukon-British Columbia border, marked the northern boundary of Tlingit territory.” Source: Yukon Government, click to view. Edit: please see the comment below by Sheila Greer regarding this image.

10 responses to “Klahoose Arborglyph

  1. Nice post Quentin – goes well with the earlier boundary markers post of yours!
    FYI, there have been three of these found this fall; this one, one on the central coast and one in the Nimpkish area. That makes about 20 of them in the recorded inventory – I wonder if others are not being added. The Archaeology Branch don’t usually accept post-1846 “CMTs” into the inventory, and that might discourage people from submitting these features for a permanent record. However, when I asked about this a few weeks ago they were happy to include these unusual features in the inventory.


  2. heard from my namgis relatives of two carved figures on cedar trees along Nimpkish lake and I heard of one on central coast too.


  3. I found several of these along a grease trail near Hazelton amongst what was essentially a culturally modified forest of hemlock trees. There are some good references in Tsimshian Narratives 2 about this trail and the likenesses carved in them. Its an incredibly moving experience to see these faces peering from a small window between healing lobes on a foggy fall morning.


  4. APM – good to hear the branch will accept post-1846 dendroglyphs.

    Elroy – I have a post forthcoming on the namgis examples – there is something on the web about it… Nice to hear from you, hope you are well.

    Darcy – yes, even Mosquito Man in the fog is quite a shock to the system. That’s Marius Barbeau’s Tsimshian Narratives you are referring to, for the general readership here, I presume.


  5. Re: the photo of tree carving situated near where the Haines Highway crosses the boundary between Yukon and BC – locally known as the Blanchard tree carving, because it was located at the Blanchard River crossing. The information presented in the caption that accompanies this photo from Yukon Archives (i.e., that is represents a territorial boundary marker) needs to be used with caution as the source for such information is unknown/uncredited, plus different stories exist within the oral history of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations people, as well as in the Haines/Klukwan Tlingit community, about the meaning of this and other similar carved trees located in Champagne and Aishihik First Nations traditional territory in southwest Yukon and north westernmost B.C.


  6. Valerie Rushton

    Dendroglyphs as first stage in evolution of totem poles, I wonder….


  7. Hi Val — that’s a good idea, especially if one were to be found with multiple, stacked figures!. On the other hand, they could be derivative of totem poles as well. Hard to figure out directions on something like this. Early renditions of the coast don’t show a lot of classic ‘totem poles” although they do show different forms of monumental wooden art.


  8. These are truly extraordinary…their living quality must be breath-taking to see in person. Thanks for bringing these to our attention Quentin et al.!


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