First Nation in BC revives tree ceremony

Story by Adrian Brijbassi Managing Editor

SHUSWAP, BRITISH COLUMBIA — James August spent one hour on a momentous Sunday morning alone with a tree. He stood in the January cold touching the bark of the 120-foot cottonwood that had spent all of its years on the property of the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band.

Elders such as August selected the cottonwood for the first tree-cutting ceremony on the First Nation’s land in more than a generation. The tree was chosen months earlier, when the elders decided they wanted to renew the community’s tradition of building handcrafted canoes. They searched different locations around their territory in the Shuswap region, an area of immaculate scenery about 85 kilometres (53 miles) northeast of Kamloops in the British Columbia interior. When they reached the town of Scotch Creek, they spotted near the water a tall, stoic cottonwood, a species ideal for canoe making because it hardens when it dries and yet remains light.

james august scotch creek tree

James August of the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band admires a 200-year-old cottonwood tree shortly before it was cut down in an aboriginal ceremony. (Adrian Brijbassi/

“When I touched it and when you get that close to it you can feel it beating,” August told members of the community and those visitors who were invited to the ceremony about his time with the tree. He spoke with tears in his eyes as he recalled his experience communing with it. “I felt sad. I knew something would be ending, but at the same time as it was ending, there was going to be a new beginning.”

Witnessing a First Nations’ Rarity

It had been more than 35 years since the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band witnessed a tree being ceremoniously brought to the ground. One of the few members of the community who remembers that day is Ralph McBryan, who was a teenager in 1981 when a previous cottonwood was cut down to provide the wood needed to build a canoe. He helped to carve the watercraft, learning alongside his grandfather.

barney tomma scotch creek kneeling

Barney Tomma takes a break as he works to bring down the titanic tree that will be used to build canoes. (Adrian Brijbassi/

“One of the proudest moments of my life was when I was working on that canoe. I remember clearly that I was aware of my culture and I could see the value of the knowledge of my people being passed down to me,” said McBryan, explaining why the tradition of cutting down a tree was being renewed. 

“People would say you didn’t need to cut down a tree because they make fibreglass canoes now. So they would ask, ‘Why do all that work to make a canoe when you can just go buy one at the store?’ But I believe in our heritage and now there’s a big revival of tradition and culture happening,” he said. “For us to revive this, it was incredible.”

The ceremony on January 22 involved elders performing a smudge ceremony for the tree and the event’s attendees. It took a member of the community, a former lumber-industry worker, about 30 minutes to cut down the 200-year-old giant with a chainsaw. The cottonwood fell gracefully, thudding into the snow and dirt with enough force to quake the ground, causing onlookers to hoot. All who watched were encouraged to take a limb that had snapped off from the branches. Those limbs, McBryan said, would honour the tree’s life.

scotch creek dog on tree

A dog in Scotch Creek delights in the tree that has changed the scenery. (Adrian Brijbassi/

For the first few months of 2017, the tree will sit in the parking lot at Quaaout Lodge, a luxury lakefront resort owned by the First Nation. Once the tree has dried, Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band members will carve two canoes out of it. Those canoes will be used to traverse the lakes and rivers, retracing ancestral routes and introducing travellers to this part of the province that is exquisite with its snow-capped peaks, sensational fishing and wildlife viewing. And, of course, rich with aboriginal culture, too.

Adrian is the editor of and He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.

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