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Indian Marker Trees, Bent with History, Tell Stories

The Republic Columbus, Indiana printed an article highlighting an Indian Marker Tree in Wichita Falls, Texas.
The Republic Columbus, Indiana printed an article highlighting an Indian Marker Tree in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Published March 30, 2011 By KEN FIBBE

 

WICHITA FALLS, Texas - It caught him by surprise. During a bike ride last December at Stonewall Jackson Camp No. 249 in Holliday, Don Briix hopped off his bike and stared.

A 60-foot tall, knobby pecan tree with a 12-foot base seemed to have grown parallel to the ground near a stream, behind a baseball field.

To most passers-by, it probably looked like just another awkwardly shaped tree. But Briix, a retired school principal who moved to Holliday from Colorado in June, sensed it was more than that.

"I remember saying, 'Oh my goodness,' " Briix said. "I think that is an Indian marker tree!"

Briix has been enthusiastic about marker trees since a park ranger showed him one in Florissant, Colo. The Colorado tree "had three limbs growing straight up out of it just like this one," he said.

Tied down for years by Native Americans, these bent trees once signified special areas of interest for tribes.

Linda Pelon, an anthropology and history instructor at McLennan Community College in Waco, has researched Comanche Indian-style marker trees for 15 years. She said they typically pointed to low water crossings, campsites, rock paint quarries, hunting trails, graves, freshwater streams and prayer sites.

"We are still finding new meanings all the time," Pelon said.

As an example, she cited a marker tree she investigated at California Crossing Park in Dallas. The location was home to a historic low water fjord used by Indians, as well as pioneers heading west during the 1849 California gold rush.

She said a marker tree atop a ridge pointed to a small quarry containing pigmented rock used to make red, brown and rust-colored paint.

"It could have very easily been missed had the marker not notified them," she said. "We found a stone tool there."

In 1997, Comanche Indian Tribe Chairman Wallace E. Coffey officially blessed a marker tree at Gateway Park in Dallas. He wrote a letter proclaiming that the tree grew on "a preferred Comanche campsite" near an "abundance of water and food resources including buffalo, deer, turkey, pecans plums and fresh grass for our ponies."

A year after its declaration, the Gateway tree blew over in a storm. But in the interim, Pelon said local Indians reconnected with each other there. "They would share tobacco, talk to each other, share stories, and pray at it," she said. "These are very sacred trees to them."

In the mid- to late 1800s, many Indians were moved to reservations and forced to abandon their culture, Pelon said. By the 1950s, when many were brought back through another relocation program, few Indians knew much about their history.

"The difficulty is that not much of it is written down, it is all word-of-mouth, passed down by tribal elders," said George Wells, president of Mountain Stewards, a Georgia-based nonprofit that researches marker trees across America.

Wells said the stewards have documented more than 1,600 trees and over 1,000 miles of Indian trails across 39 states. Stewards register marker trees on Google Earth, seeking patterns and trails. He plans to show documentary footage about marker trees and plans to Congress, hoping to start legislation to protect the historic trees.

"National preservation laws do have elements to protect Indian trails," he said, but not living historical ties such as trees.

Pelon is one of the Mountain Stewards. The group accepts tree photos and other evidence submitted to http://www.mountainstewards.org./

If she thinks it's likely a marker tree, Pelon will take the evidence -- documented tribal presence, photos, possible reasons for a marking, expert tree age estimations, etc. -- and present it to a tribal council.

"But they may not want to tell you whether or not something is part of their heritage," she said. "It may be information they want to keep within their tribes."

Based on evidence and knowledge, a tribe can decide whether to claim a tree as its own. If proclaimed, a tree typically becomes a historic landmark and can attract tourism dollars to the area.

Judging from a photo of the Holliday tree, arborist Steve Houser -- who has researched marker trees for almost two decades, said "the bend ... the knobs, the Indian history of the area, its location: It all adds up to make a very, very strong case."

Ultimately, he said he hopes people will come to recognize and respect these type of trees more -- just as the Indians did.

"The trees are a part of Indian heritage and history, and we need to preserve them for generations to come," he said. "They are a living legacy. How cool is that?"

About the author

Mr. Ken Fibbe

Mr. Fibbe reported for the Scripps Howard News Service before operations ceased after 96 years in 2013.

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