“If they could talk, the stories they could tell,” Steve Houser, an arborist and founding member of the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition, told the Associated Press. The trees, he said, “were like an early road map” for American Indians.
The trees are known as Indian marker trees or trail trees and were bent by Native Americans in their youth to mark trails or other landmarks, like a creek crossing.
Houser’s mission: to protect the historic trees and their stories. The group has identified four marker trees and is looking into reports of 32 more across Texas.
Groups like Houser’s are popping up across the country to protect and maintain the trees.
Mountain Stewards, a nonprofit based in Jasper, Georgia has compiled a database of 1,850 marker trees in 39 states, reported the AP.
The group’s process to verify a tree is indeed an Indian marker includes age, it must be at least 150 to 200 years old, and finding marks that show where the tree was tied down.
The Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society’s website has a bevy of photographs of Indian marker trees. The group’s founder, Dennis Downes, released a book in 2011 called Native American Trail Marker Trees. It documents the history of the trees through Downes’s travels of North America.
“They are living archeology,” Rick Wilson, the chief ranger at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado, told the AP. Park Ranger Jeff Wolin said the Utes bent the ponderosa pines to mark a trail to Pikes Peak—tava or sun in the Ute language—an area sacred to them about eight miles away.
The trees are an important part of history that should be preserved.
“It’s something that you want to hug and say, ‘Hey, there was a time in your life when you were special to us and now you are still special and look how beautiful you are,’” Wallace Coffey, former Comanche Nation chairman told the AP. Coffey has consulted with the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition and said the marker trees they have found likely helped Comanche warriors find water or shelter during battles with the United States military.
“A lot of people don’t recognize what they are and they’re a really important part of the history of this country,” Earl Otchingwanigan, Ojibwe, told the AP. The now-retired Bemidji State University professor also said he found a trail marker in the shape of the letter “N” near his Crystal Falls, Michigan home. “When I hear people are interested in it, I think they are starting to understand that there are a lot of messages on this earth that people cannot take for granted anymore.”