Recognizing ‘Our Ancestor’ in the Forest: Documenting Oregon’s Heritage Trees with OHS Digital Collections

November 16, 2021

By David-Paul Hedberg

Lantern slides, such as this one now available on OHS Digital Collections, provided historical visual material for a recent documentary on Nuu-k’wii-daa-naa~-ye ‘Our Ancestor,’ a 400-year-old Sitka spruce tree inducted into Oregon’s Heritage Tree program in 2020. This lantern slide shows workers in the Spruce Production Division posing with an undercut spruce tree. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 1062, box 1, 16.

What did the coastal forests of Oregon look like a century ago when loggers and sawmillers produced over 1.4 million feet of spruce for World War I? OHS Digital Collections (OHSDC) helped answer that question. About a dozen digitized images, selected from over 50 images available on OHSDC from the U.S. Army’s Spruce Production Division Lantern Slides, provided important visual archival material for a short documentary film about one of the state’s recently inducted Heritage Trees. 

The Oregon Heritage Tree Program recognizes Oregon trees of statewide historical and cultural significance. The committee of agency staff and volunteers from across Oregon both research, review, and approve nominations as well as provide educational materials to promote the appreciation of trees in Oregon’s heritage. In lieu of its regular in-person dedications due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Annie Von Domitz, the Oregon Travel Information Council's Heritage and Community Assets Manager, collaborated with Outdoor History Consulting to produce several short documentaries on each of the trees inducted into the state’s Heritage Tree program in 2020. The first film documents the community history and significance associated with a Sitka spruce tree, recognized by Lincoln City and the Oregon Heritage Tree Program as Nuu-kwii-daa-naa~-ye, which translates loosely to ‘Our Ancestor’ in Siletz Dee-ni. 

Nuu-k’wii-daa-naa~-ye view from above, courtesy of Outdoor History Consulting.
With an estimated age of over 400 years old, Nuu-k’wii-daa-naa~-ye bears the scars of past weather events as it towers over 200 feet from the ground. Photograph courtesy of Outdoor History Consulting.

Trees are living, record-keeping archives. Each year, a new growth ring helps tell the story of the tree and the environmental conditions it experienced that year. But to get an exact age of a tree, it needs to be cut down. The committee estimates Nuu-k’wii-daa-naa~-ye to be about 400 years old. Embedded in its trunk are annual rings that document its beginnings in a forest stewarded by Indigenous peoples to the development of and growth of Lincoln City. The tree stands as an anchor through 400 years of time. 

The tree, and the name the community has given it, reminds all of us who visit it to connect with our collective past and recognize our ancestors, wherever they came from. Lincoln City councilor Riley Hoagland worked with Tim Stuart, a local resident and member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon, to officially name the tree. Stuart selected a name that honors the official language of the Siletz and broadly applies to everyone who visits the tree — no matter where we may call home, we all have ancestors. Although Stuart is Siletz and has a deep personal connection to the area, many of his ancestors were from different parts of the northwest until U.S. government agents forcefully removed them and placed them on the Coast Indian Reservation in the 1850s.

Tim Stuart, Nayson Tooya Stuart, and Tiffany Stuart at the base of Nuu-k’wii-daa-naa~-ye. Courtesy of Outdoor History Consulting.
Tim Stuart (left), member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, stands at the base of Nuu-k’wii-daa-naa~-ye with his nephew, Nayson Tooya Stuart, and sister, Tiffany Stuart. Photograph courtesy of Outdoor History Consulting.

Gloria Ingle, Chair of the Siletz Tribal Arts and Heritage Society, stated that her family had a long history of working in the local logging and milling industry, as do many families in the area. As a newly designated Oregon Heritage Tree, she is happy to see a name that recognizes the Siletz language and honors the history of those who took part in the stewardship of trees as well as those who labored in the forest.

With a rich history of logging and lumbering on the coast, the tree was allegedly saved by loggers to help reseed the forest. Although verifying the particulars of that story remains difficult, the tree is one of the largest and oldest spruce trees in the area today. So, it is quite likely that someone made the conscious decision not to cut down this tree as they were cutting all the other trees around it. 

Forest scene showing stumps, felled trees, and standing trees. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 1062, box 1, 024.
This 1918 forest scene showing felled trees and stumps is part of the Spruce Production Division Lantern Slides collection preserved in OHS’s research library Spruce Production Division Lantern Slides collection. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 1062, box 1, 024.

During World War I, demand for spruce skyrocketed, turning most of these giant trees into lumber. With its high strength and lightweight characteristics, spruce was ideal for building aircraft. In the summer of 1917, however, tensions over unsafe working conditions pushed union loggers and lumbermen of the International Workers of the World and American Federation of Labor to go on strike. To maintain war production, the U.S. Army responded by nationalizing the timber industry and forming the Spruce Production Division and the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen. Army troops worked directly with civilian loggers in camps, mills, and forests of the Pacific Northwest, with over 3,000 soldiers assigned to the Yaquina district and working with private firms in Lincoln County such as Warren Spruce and Aircraft Spruce Company. By the war’s end in 1918, the Spruce Production Division had milled 53,718,591 board feet of lumber from spruce trees across Oregon and Washington (total war time production was 143,008,961 board feet). With so many trees felled a century ago, it makes sense that seeing old spruce trees in easily accessible places is a rarity today — the most accessible trees were cut for the war.

The Oregon Historical Society’s online resources proved invaluable for the production of this short film. The Oregon Encyclopedia entries on the Spruce Production Division and Sitka spruce offered important context in the initial research. The Spruce Production Division Glass Lantern Sides in OHS’s digital collections powerfully show both the enormity of the old growth spruce landscape and the significant technology and labor used to cut down and move these giant trees to mills. With several slides sourced to the greater Lincoln County area, the images show viewers what this forest landscape once looked like a century ago and the efforts involved in logging the ancient spruce forest.

The next time you are in Lincoln City, be sure to stop by Regatta Park and visit Nuu-k’wii-daa-naa~-ye. As you gaze at this ancient tree, take a moment to think about all the changes it has witnessed. Take another moment and think about the actions of our ancestors and your role in shaping our future. 

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