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The Living Forest

We know our forests are special places. But for the Native Americans who have lived among them for centuries, they are more than that. Trees are family membersthat give, heal, provide, protect, and nurture. Trees are sacred. Listen to the trees.

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Years ago, my family hiked into the Navajo Nation forest with a medicine man in search of a tree that could act as an intermediary to the Creator. It had to be sturdy enough to match our prayers for positive growth and young enough to have time to mature so its protection could last a lifetime. The medicine man selected a young Douglas fir that had no blemishes, bends, or twists. It was perfect.

We offered the little fir gifts that signified our gratitude. My husband and son placed turquoise while my daughter and I laid a white shell near its trunk. We sprinkled corn pollen on its needles to honor our lives as part of nature.

When I was 21, my birth mother died of cancer. Seeking grounding, I turned to the natural world, and soon, to the indigenous people most connected to it. In this way, I met Ursula Knoki-Wilson of the Táchii’nii, who adopted me as the daughter she never had and hired the medicine man for my Blessingway Ceremony. Later, I was adopted by Elaine Abraham’s family of the Naa Tláa of Yéil Naa, K’inéix Kwáan from the Tsisk’w Hit of Yakutat, Alaska, who named me Guna Kadeit Seedi Shaawat. My relatives taught me that everything has a spirit and needs to be respected.

Trees are people to be negotiated with and lived with on shared terms. Their lessons are available to anyone who hikes among the forest with an open heart, and listens.

Carly Hennigan /

Forests Give

Mountain Cahuilla

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, CA

Even in drought years, when hot desert winds dessicate the fan-palm oases that pool in the desert canyons, there is still the agave. The Mountain Cahuilla people harvest the base of the stalk, which is considered the heart. It can weigh several pounds and tastes like a sweet potato, pineapple, and molasses when roasted underground. Lorene Sisquoc (Mountain Cahuilla/Fort Still Apache), culture traditions leader at the Sherman Indian Museum, says roasting agave hearts the traditional way is still practiced today. “We go out into the mountains to harvest, to collect them for sustenance, and for our gatherings,” she says. “We feel like we were put here to take care of the trees, plants, and land for the next generation and utilize these gifts that were given to us.”

See It: Bear Creek Oasis 

Follow a sandy wash to a palm-fringed oasis at the edge of the scrubby hills. The 9-mile out-and-back starts on sun-covered flatlands at Cove Oasis trailhead before climbing almost 2,000 feet starting at mile 1.9. Turn around to take in the desert views spreading out below your feet and scan the hillsides for bighorn sheep foraging among the agave plants. (Note: no shade, no water.)

ehrlif /

Forests Heal


Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN/NC

Eastern hemlocks once fringed the Atlantic seaboard from Nova Scotia down to North Carolina, creating vast understories beneath their 150-foot-tall canopies. Because they can germinate in low-light, eastern hemlocks build a stratified forest with a depth of shade that cools streams for trout and slows rhododendrons from overtaking rare native ferns.

Today, these forests are threatened by the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect that arrived in the country in the 1920s and spread inexorably south, arriving here in 2002 and starving the ancient hemlocks. Isolated pockets in the park still hold nearly 800 acres of old-growth, some of the last great stands in the country (conservation efforts are underway).

The Cherokee, whose ancestral home is the Smokies, call trees Standing People and rely on them to provide medicine and materials for building and basketry. “Long ago, when we all spoke the same language, the animals and insects got angry with humans for taking more than they needed,” says Fulton L. Arrington, a mixed-blood Cherokee. “When the trees and plants heard that the animals and insects each created a disease to afflict humans, they decided to produce a medicine for every disease.”

See It: Mt. LeConte

Spend 13 miles among 200-year-old stands of eastern hemlock from Rainbow Falls trailhead to mountaintop views at Leconte Shelter. Permit Required for overnight trips (free); reserve campsite ($4/person per night)

bear in tree
Mark Kelley /

Forests Live


Tongass National Forest, AK

Emerald islands emerge from the mist over southeast Alaska’s coast, where bears outnumber residents, glaciers calve into the sea, rivers burst with salmon, and salmon carcasses nourish the 800-year-old western red cedars that grow here. This is the Tongass National Forest, a rare rainforest ecosystem and the largest national forest in the United States. The Tlingit people and others have lived here for more than 10,000 years. “We call trees the People of the Trees,” said my grandmother, Elaine Elizabeth Abraham, Chuushah of the Naa Tláa of Yéil Naa, K’inéix Kwáan from the Tsisk’w Hit of Yakutat, Alaska. “Long ago, we lived with trees as if they were human. We warred and made peace with them.” Their mutual respect was born of an understanding that all lives are intertwined.

Forty years ago, when my great-grandfather wanted to build Yakutat’s Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, he had to negotiate with a stretch of mountain hemlock. At first, the trees refused his entreaty. Later, the People of the Trees agreed to give up their lives only if my great-grandfather cut them down in the winter. The harvest would be harder, but the snow would provide a cushion to support the trees’ fall and a cold-season felling would do less damage to their community—the moss, ants, and nests they clutched in their branches come spring. “For those that use trees for commercial reasons or for their homes, I hope you remember some of this,” my grandmother said. “That’s all I ask.”

See It: Point Bishop Trail

Wander through coastal forest and dip onto gravel beaches on this 15.4-mile out-and-back from Juneau that connects two seaside points. Notice the depth of moss and the density of vegetation as you tack in and out of tidal flats and forest to Point Salisbury before continuing to Point Bishop. Look for killer whales in Gastineau Channel and bald eagles scanning for dinner from the seaside trees in this archipelago.

Russell Wood

Forests Protect


Navajo Nation, AZ, NM & UT

To gain elevation above the sprawling swirl of red dust on red rock and stand atop Defiance Plateau or the Chuska and Lukachukai Mountains is to transition from a desert landscape to one of lush green. More than 600,000 acres of ponderosa pine (pictured), Douglas fir, pinyon, juniper, and, oak are pocketed with clear alpine lakes in the borderlands between northern New Mexico and Arizona. Standing above the heat, the Diné’s worldview comes into focus.“The Diné believe forest trees are intermediary to Diyin, the Creator,” explains Navajo Chanter Roland Begay of the Kinłichii’nii. “Before harvesting trees or praying to them, the Diné offer gratitude and petitions by gifting trees with varied colored gem stones and corn pollen,” adds my mother Ursula Knoki-Wilson of the Táchii’nii. Diné make cradleboards out of ponderosa pine to protect newborns and help them grow to be strong and tall as the tree.

See It: Guided Hike

All trips on Navajo Tribal Lands must be accompanied by an indigenous person. Contact Navajo Nation Parks & Rec to find an itinerary and guide.

Photo by Stephen /

Forests Are Sacred

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde

Willamette National Forest, OR

For thousands of years, Delight Satter’s ancestors have lived in dense forests of Douglas fir and western red cedar, where beams of light spot a mossy floor bristling with ferns, huckleberry bushes, hemlocks, and mushrooms. Here, elder cedars can grow trunks 20 feet in diameter and canopies that tower 200 feet overhead. For hikers able to read the signals, Satter, who is Umpqua and an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, says trees communicate telepathically or kinetically (parting of branches, dropping branches, pointing, helping). “The cedar is important in many ways to people of the Pacific Northwest for transportation (canoes), housing, clothing, and medicine,” she adds. “We use it in traditional prayer ceremonies. When I travel home, I always collect some for our family prayers so I have it wherever I am living as an urban Indian.” Red cedar resists rot, meaning fallen giants can remain on the forest floor for centuries, eventually becoming nurseries for the next generation.

See It: Middle Fork Willamette Trail 

Climb through stands of old-growth cedars and Douglas firs beside the rushing Middle Fork on this 27-mile point-to-point to the river’s headwaters. Several trailheads offer access for short section, but backpackers can tackle the entire route in 3 or 4 days from the Sand Prairie Campground to Timpanogas Lake. Permit None

Adam Jones

Forests Know

Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians

Hiawatha National Forest, MI

Just when winter along the Great Lakes seem interminable, when food stores are nearing their ends, the sugar maples offer up their gift. “Every spring, usually in March, when there’s still snow on the ground and temperatures start to rise above freezing during the day, we snowshoe to the sugar maples,” say Bernadette Bouschor Azevedo of the Mukwa and Cathy Abramson of the Miaingin Dodem. Both are from Sugar Island and former tribal council members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Rising temperatures create enough pressure to make the sap flow by day, and lower temperatures at night slow the trickle down to give the tree time to make more sugar. The resulting nectar sustains forest creatures until spring gives way to more flowers and food.

See It: Grand Island Loop

Head up to northern Michigan’s Grand Island to see sugar maple forests, shoreline bluffs, lonely coves, and views to Pictured Rocks, a few miles offshore in Lake Superior. Heading clockwise, the 21-mile loop connects the West and East Rim Trails and offers shoreline camping at North Beach at the halfway point. A 2.5-mile roadwalk closes the loop at the Williams Landing. Permit None Ferry Grand Island Ferry Service; $20

hawaii forest
Abbie Warnock-Matthews /

Forests Love

Native Hawaiian

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, HI

Koa is a wood traditionally only harvested for royalty or carved into canoes, tools, and ornate bowls and containers. It transitions from a whitish, smooth-bark sapling with long, spindly leaflets to a tree with large sickle-shaped leaves and a rough, orange-brown trunk. Its spreading, often lichen-covered branches grow up to 100 feet tall over beds of palapalai ferns near the summit of the volcano called Kīlauea. Koa and fern are used in hula, a dance of storytelling and stewardship to the land. “Koa is more than a tree,” says Kimokeo Kapahulehua, one of Hawai‘i’s wisdom keepers. “Laka, the goddess of hula, lives in the forest. All koa trees are children of Laka. Anyone who enters the forest must ask her permission.”

See It: Pu’u ‘Ō‘Ō Trail

Meander through ‘ohi’a rainforest on this short out-and-back to a blue-ribbon stand of koa trees. The 3.7-mile (each way) trail starts at the Pu’u ‘Ō‘ō trailhead and crosses through multiple kīpuka (islands of forest surrounded by hardened lava) in the foggy interior of the big island. Due to a lack of visual landmarks, crossing lava flows
can be tricky in low visibility, so keep an eye out for a fog-free forecast.

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