Redwoods are integral to the practical and spiritual lives of many Indigenous Peoples along the California coast.
According to the Yurok, traditional family homes and sweathouses are made from fallen keehl (redwood trees) which are then cut into redwood boards. Traditional Yurok stories teach that the redwood trees are sacred living beings. Although, used in homes and canoes, Yurok people also respect redwood trees because they stand as guardians over their sacred places.
The Sinkyone people of Southern Humboldt, have had a sustained, longstanding relationship with the redwoods, called Gááhs-tcho (pronounced GAAS-cho) in the Sinkyone language. Redwoods are used to craft houses, clothing, baskets, canoes, and fish traps. In 1981, Minni Reeves, an elder and spiritual leader of the Chilula people who neighbor the Sinkyone, shared the significance of the redwoods to the Chilula and other Indigenous Peoples of the area:
“The redwood trees are sacred. They are a special gift and reminder from the Great Creator to the human beings. The Great Creator made everything, including trees of all kinds, but he wanted to leave a special gift for his children. So he took a little medicine from each tree, he said a prayer and sang a powerful song, and then he mixed it all with the blood of our people. Then he created this special redwood tree from this medicine. He left it on Earth as a demonstration of his love for his children. The redwood trees have a lot of power: they are the tallest, live the longest, and are the most beautiful trees in the world. Destroy these trees and you destroy the Creator’s love. And if you destroy that which the Creator loves so much, you will eventually destroy mankind.”
Redwood trees, called k’vsh-chn, have a multitude of traditional and practical applications in the Tolowa culture, whose ancestral lands are in Del Norte County. Wood is used to build plank houses, sweathouses, and acorn mush paddles. Roots are used in ceremonial basketry, and redwood needles are used for medicine. The Tolowa Dee-ni’ use the wood from fallen redwood trees to carve xee-nvs (dugout canoes). With dugout canoes, the Tolowa can fish in creeks and rivers and voyage to the ocean.
Indigenous People Around Humboldt County
The Tribal communities of the North Coast region have made the redwood forests and associated ecosystems their home since time immemorial. These Tribes speak many different languages and hold numerous and distinct identities. Today, Indigenous people continue to live on and off reservations in the redwood region.
Many Tribes in the area including the Tolowa, Yurok, Hupa, and Karuk, have living languages, spoken, in some cases by a handful of cherished elders. Encouragingly, these languages are once again being learned by members of the younger generation through new language programs.
Despite dreadful events of the past 150 years, the Indigenous communities of northwestern California has persisted. They have, in fact, done more than persist. Whether in politics, art, religion, or any other area of life, the communities exhibit great variety and vigor.