Native American's use of wood

Native American's lived off the land for thousands of years before European settlers came to America. These indigenous people used wood and wood products extensively in their day-to-day activities for their dwellings, tools, weapons, clothing, medicines, art, music, ceremonies, and food.

Many tribes used wood posts from evergreens like pine, spruce, and cedar for their dwellings. Plains Indians would travel for days to obtain lodgepole pine logs since they were very straight and of a relatively small diameter so they could be more easily handled. Willow and cottonwood branches were used in the framing of thatched house that southern tribes constructed. Oak was extensively used for tool handles, corn pounding motors, baskets, and barrels. Native peoples learned early on that white oak wood was nonporous and it could hold water. The tannins, lignins and other chemicals from oaks were also extensively used as dyes, and to cure leather. Black oak was a favorite tree for tanning leather and in the production of a yellow dye.

Small Wigwam


Acorns were used extensively for flour, especially white oak acorns, since they did not contain bitter tasting tannins. In addition to oak, hickory, black walnut, hazel nut, beech, and pinyon pine, nuts were harvested for food. Indigenous people also tapped sugar and red maple, as well as some hickories for syrup. The berries of hackberry were dried and ground into a pepper-like condiment that was used for flavoring and tenderizing meat. Fruits such as plums, serviceberry, crabapple, and currants were widely eaten when they were in season, or they were dried and stored for the winter months.

The western red cedar was treasured by people from the Pacific North West in the construction of boats, homes, totem poles, artwork, and for many medicinal purposes. Slivers of this aromatic wood were burned in ceremonial fires and to repel mosquitoes and black flies. The eastern red cedar and northern white cedar were also employed by eastern tribes for many of the same uses. The needles and berries were ground up and burned as a remedy for colds. Eastern Red cedar was used in storage chests since this aromatic wood naturally repelled insects. Northern tribes learned that yews had chemicals that cured many ailments, and today this tree is widely used in chemotherapy. Other woody plants that were used in tonics and medicines include witch hazel, willow, elm, choke cherry, sumac, maple, spruce, and pine.

Numerous woods were used in the making of bows, especially ash, sycamore, oak, cedar, hickory, and Osage orange. The Osage orange was highly prized as a bow making material. Arrows were made from dogwood, serviceberry, arrow-wood, hickory, witch hazel, and sourwood. Paper and white birch were highly prized for canoes, wigwam coverings, tools, torches, and in the charcoal production. Yellow birch was a prized wood, as well, and the inner bark was boiled to create a tea-like beverage that was high in vitamin C. Native tribes distilled resins from a number of trees for varnish, lacquer, medicines, and incense. Elm wood was used for eating utensils; a food preservative was derived by boiling the bark. Sumac leaves were dried and mixed with tobacco as a flavoring. A yellowish dye was also derived from the sumac. Native tribes produced dark colored dyes from walnut, maples, and locust trees.

Not only did indigenous people make extensive use of wood products, they also managed the forest, usually by the use of fire. Fire was used to convert forest into grasslands, and to maintain the meadow cover by burning these areas on one to three year cycles. Fire was also employed by hunting parties to drive wild game towards the waiting hunters, and to keep roads and trails open for travel. Native tribes also employed fire to burn the underbrush, thus reducing the incidence of large-scale forest fires, and to reinvigorate stands of trees such as aspen or lodgepole pine.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature note for 8/7/21