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Native Roots 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & tall Ponderosa pine with spreading limbs and massive girth stood unblinking sentinel as the world changed at its feet.





Through an estimated two centuries, the landmark pine grew as the people gathering round its trunk changed from Schitsu'umsh (pronounced SKEET-soo, the discovered people) to being called Coeur d'Alene Indians.





"It was a medicine tree. Many times the tribe would meet there and hang different prayer bags on it before excursions," Coeur d'Alene tribal elder Cliff Sijohn says.





The tree grew as the land where its roots drew nourishment changed from being simply the land to being called Idaho. It grew as cultures were lost and then discovered again.





In recent decades the tree has been a milepost of sorts, marking an accident-prone, tight, hilly corner of U.S. Highway 95 just north of the town of Worley on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation. It became known variously as the corner tree, the medicine tree, the good-luck tree and Grandfather Tree.





Or simply, the tree. Even in a part of Idaho filled with forested draws and hillsides, when someone said "the tree," most everyone knew it meant the big, solitary pine at the edge of the wheat field along Highway 95.





After surviving centuries of winter cold, summer heat and lightning strikes, the tree could not stave off the two yellow track-hoes of the Idaho Transportation Department that arrived on a drizzly May 13 to widen the highway. The new four-lane divided highway cuts a wide swath across the land and the tree was in the way. The buckets and hydraulic arms of the heavy equipment pushed the tree to the ground a day after tribal members gathered to honor it in a private ceremony.





But in a deal struck between ITD and the tribe, the remains of the tree now lie in a highway maintenance yard on the reservation. It is from this harsh and unlikely place -- where the massive trunk, cut into three semi-trailer-sized segments, bakes upon the gravel -- that the tree begins its afterlife.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & ribal members are invited to take pieces of the tree -- limbs or slabs or rounds. There is hope of new growth from seed. There is an expectation of art made from the tree. And the great bulk of it will be placed in a stream, where it will nourish a variety of lives as it slowly decomposes.





"I took some pine cones to see if we can get some seedlings," says Quanah Matheson, cultural resources director for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. "Some folks got pine cones, and some got limbs for art work. The tree is available for people to make furniture, tables, whatever. I am hoping to save a big chunk for a tribal museum."





Matheson slowly circles the remains of the tree in the ITD yard on a sun-drenched Friday. He is dwarfed by the root section. His hands rest upon a section of trunk that is scorched black where the tree was set afire by lightning (more than once, people say).





He bends to examine an exposed end. After two months in the sun, the end is checked and weathered, making the rings barely visible.





But Matheson's mind's eye is back in May when the cut was fresh and the rings showed dark against the pale softwood. His fingertip jumps from point to point as Matheson animatedly wonders what could have been happening at this very time or that very time among the Schitsu'umsh during the span of centuries that the tree stood vigil.





Tribal elder Cliff Sijohn is excited by this also.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "W & lt;/span & hat I hope to be able to do is take a slab from the trunk and square it off and count the rings to make a calendar," Sijohn says.





The rings fuzz out in the center of the tree, where there is a large circle of heart rot, making the age of Grandfather Tree uncertain.





"We sat and counted 155 or 159 rings without the core," says Marvin Fenn, the ITD engineer in charge of this section of the Highway 95 widening. "It wouldn't surprise me if it hit 200 with that piece missing."





Matheson estimates the tree may be as old as 250 years.





"The tree has a unique history," he says. "From what I've heard from the elders, some important talks took place under that tree. Some see it as a sacred tree.





"There is a lot of history associated with this tree and a lot of people want to keep that in their homes," Matheson says.





Sijohn's wife, Lori, was among the people gathering parts of the tree. She is an artist, and Matheson can't wait to see what she and others make from the wood of the tree, giving it new life in different form.





The wood will dry and cure at its own pace, Cliff Sijohn says. "It's not going nowhere for now. The tree will talk to us and tell us whether it will be faces or animals."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he term Grandfather Tree is new, Sijohn says. "It was a medicine tree. It was only a half-mile from an old east-west trail, a war trail."





And it was enough of a landmark that "people would say 'I'll meet you at the tree in two days,'" Sijohn says. According to stories passed down in his family, warriors would assemble at the tree before raids, or to parley with neighboring tribes and, later, with U.S. soldiers. The trail was also entry to camas grounds, the bulbs of which were an important food source.





So both the fighters and the food gatherers had reason to leave prayer bundles on the tree, asking for success in their quests. Many whites and some tribal members quietly scoff at this as the stuff of fairy tales. But consider this: The aspect of seeking good fortune at the tree morphed into something still recognizable in modern days.





"We heard many names for the tree. For a while I tried to keep a list," says the ITD's Fenn. Among them was "... the good-luck tree. You would stop and pat it to have good luck at the casino."





Just a few miles north of where the tree stood is a casino, and the money it generates is lifting the Coeur d'Alenes out of a long span of poverty and despair. As the tribe gains new life, its members are offering new vitality to the tree.





Perhaps the best afterlife for this landmark tree will come in just a few weeks when ITD and the tribe will move the large trunk sections out into the woods where they will be incorporated into a fisheries restoration project.





Fisheries biologist Angelo Vitale is heading a project to restore Benewah Creek to its historic conditions in order to save imperiled native cutthroat trout.





"We are in the fourth season of channel restoration and we use a lot of native material, a lot of natural material in the project including large wood," Vitale says. "Historically trees in Benewah Creek were recruited by mortality or wind-throw and provided important fish habitat and cover."





Fewer trees end up in the streams in landscapes managed by humans instead of by nature. As a result, the streams tend to run faster inside of cut banks instead of pooling and spreading around obstacles. Erosion becomes a problem, water temperatures rise and fish may not find suitable redds, or gravel nests, to leave their eggs.





Grandfather Tree will help change this. The tribal fisheries department is just completing a study that examined impacts of large wood, as it's called, in small streams.





"One aspect of [the study] is to estimate the longevity of the wood. Once it is saturated in water, it is there for an incredibly long time -- 150 or 200 years or longer," Vitale says. "A tree the size of the Worley tree will be identifiable for centuries."





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