The Power of Trees: Lessons from Burien’s First Peoples

Burien is home to many beautiful species of trees that are native to the area. Burien’s original residents, the Duwamish and Muckleshoot people, relied on these same trees for essential food, medicine, and construction materials. These trees also played an important role in their spiritual and cultural practices. Read on for more about each tree and their relationship with our original residents.

Western red cedar

The Western red cedar (Lushootseed: x̌payʔac) was the most important tree for many local Native American tribes and was known as the “tree of life”. Branches were made into fishing line, rope, and twine. The bark (suk̓ʷəb) was made into mats, rope, basketry, rain hats, and clothing. The wood was made into ceremonial head dresses, rattles, boxes, dishes, coffins, tools, houses, canoes, and totem poles.

Red alder

Red Alder (detail)

The bark of the Red alder (Lushootseed: sək̓ʷəbac) was used to treat headaches, arthritis, cholera, tuberculosis, stomach aches, poison oak, and insect bites. The wood was used to make dishes spoons, platters, and masks and was considered the best for smoking salmon. A red or orange dye was used to color fishnets so they would be invisible to fish.

Bigleaf maple

Wood from the Bigleaf maple (Lushootseed: č̓uʔɬac) was used to make dishes, pipes, and hooks for clothing. Some people who made paddles out of the wood called it the “paddle tree”. The inner bark was used to make baskets, rope, and whisks. Some tribes would use the bark for sore throats.

Western hemlock

Western Hemlock (detail)

A red dye was made from the bark of the Western hemlock to color clothing and baskets and as a facial cosmetic. The bark was also used as a tanning agent and cleansing solution. The wood was used to make bows, spoons, combs, roasting pits, and dip-net poles. Pitch has been chewed as a gum. Western hemlock was used for a variety of purposes, including poultices or poultice coverings, liniments rubbed on the chest for colds, and as a salve to prevent sunburn when mixed with deer tallow. The leaves and shoot tips were used to make an herbal tea.

Pacific yew

The Pacific yew (Lushootseed: c̓əx̌bidac) was used for constructing harpoons, spear handles, eating utensils, wedges, fishhooks, and paddles. It is known for its value in making bows and was formerly referred to as “bow plant” by the Salish people. It was used medicinally by making teas from the needles and bark, and by applying crushed needles to wounds.

Bitter cherry

Bitter Cherry (detail)

Bitter cherry (Lushootseed: plilaʔ) was used to treat a variety of ailments. The bark was used for tuberculosis, eczema, colds, and cardiac issues. The bark, stuck on with resin, was used as a dressing for wounds. A green dye was made from the leaves and fruit. The bark was used to make watertight baskets and for ornamenting baskets. The bark was also used for making mats, ropes, string, and arrows.

Pacific dogwood

Pacific Dogwood (detail)

Young shoots of the Pacific dogwood (Lushootseed: kʷədabidac) were often used for weaving baskets. The wood was used for harpoon shafts and other implements.

Paper birch

Paper Birch (detail)

The Paper birch was used to make baskets, storage containers, mats, baby carriers, torches, household utensils, spears, bows, arrows, buckets, canoes, and many other items. A brown or red dye was made from the inner bark. Sap was used as a sweet flavoring and teas were made from the leaves and root bark. The bark was used as a salve, astringent, and as a bandage on burns. The bark was also used as a cast for broken bones.

Pacific madrone

Pacific Madrone (detail)

The berries of the Pacific madrone were used for necklaces and other decorations, as a bait for fishing, and to make into a cider. Medicinal teas were made from both the berries and the bark. Bark and leaves were used to treat stomach aches, cramps, skin ailments, and sore throats. The flowers also produce nectar which can be made into honey.

Douglas fir

Douglas Fir (detail)

Douglas fir wood (Lushootseed: čəbidac) was used for fuel, small utensils, and tools. The pitch was used for sealing joints and caulking canoes and water containers. Young shoot tips were used as a flavoring for cooking foods. Young leaves and twigs were used for making tea. The inner bark was ground into a meal for making bread. The tree and its parts had a variety of medicinal properties including treatment of cuts, burns, and wounds, coughs and sore throats, bleeding, stomach problems, arthritis, kidney and bladder problems, and as a mouthwash.

Grand fir

Grand Fir (detail)

The needles of the Grand fir were boiled to make a medicinal tea for colds. Boughs were brought inside as an air freshener and burned as incense or to make a purifying smoke to ward off illnesses.


Nicole Gaudette
Former Senior Planner at City of Burien | More posts
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