Culturally Modified Trees: Living Sculptures Waiting to be Discovered

View of culturally modified tree cross-section

Don Wells and his fellow retirees kept seeing oddly bent trees on their weekly hikes in the northern Georgia mountains. They were intrigued with the ancient giants. Wells happened to meet neighbor Elaine Jordan, who wrote a guide book, Indian Trail Trees, after interviewing Native Americans about these trees. He started taking her to the trees and photographing them. Trail Tree’itis hit and suddenly, the retired civil engineer was starting a whole new career.

For over 10 years, the log home designed by Wells and his wife, Diane, has been headquarters for Mountain Stewards, known for having the only national database of these unique living artifacts.

Today, the Wells still drive up to 10,000 miles a year visiting bent trees and tree researchers across the U.S. 

Muscogee Creek Tribal Elder and Don Wells visiting a CMT in Georgia
Muscogee Creek Tribal Elder and Don Wells visiting a CMT in Georgia

What do these trees look like?

They are those unusual trees that make you stop and wonder how a tree could have possibly curved and grown sideways, at such an impossible angle, and then turned sharply up again toward the sky. They look like sculptures. They are historical curiosities that can be found anywhere—private land, forests, city parks, front yards, golf courses. 

Although they are over 100 years old and have increased in diameter, amazingly, the bent portions of these trees still point in the same direction as when the Native Americans are believed to have first bent them. They ingeniously bent saplings and tied them down with a strip of rawhide, bark or tough vine, forcing it to grow into distorted un-natural shapes. Typically, the tree had a horizontal bend several feet off the ground and oftentimes, branches grew vertically from bent sections.

But, why do this to a tree? Bending doesn’t kill or damage trees, says anthropologist Linda Pelon, who co-authored the book, Comanche Marker Trees of Texas with Comanche Tribal Administrator Jimmy W. Arterberry and Arborist Steve Houser. 

It was a simply sophisticated way to use land,” Pelon believes. Native Americans were always walking and created these permanent living signs to navigate the American West and communicate with one another, and ultimately, keep their tribes together.

“It was a simply sophisticated way to use land,” Pelon believes. Native Americans were always walking and created these permanent living signs to navigate the American West and communicate with one another, and ultimately, keep their tribes together. 

It was their GPS! “Bent trees told them where to go,” says Houser, founding member of Texas Historic Tree Coalition.

Often called Trail or Marker Trees, “the vocabulary on how these trees are referenced varies geographically,” says John Anderson, whose fascination with strangely bent ponderosa pines in southern Colorado led him to write the book, Ute Indian Prayer Trees of the Pikes Peak Region

Most researchers concur that Culturally Modified Trees (CMT’s) is an all-encompassing term that can be used to describe trees that have been modified by indigenous people.

CMT’s helped Native Americans find what they needed to live, such as safe paths through rough forests, natural springs, river crossings, shelter and encampments, ancestor’s graves, medicinal plants, hunting areas, exposed mineral deposits (copper, salt, silver, and quartz were among many minerals mined to make jewelry; and chirt was used to make tools and weapons like knife blades and ax heads).

In the Wells’ documentary, Mystery of the Trees, Tom Belt of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma explains the purpose: “The bending of trees were essentially part of a great highway system that allowed people from many tribes to interact with each other, and there was an inordinate amount of trade going on.”

Trying to categorize CMT’s

In 2007, the Wells invited researchers to share photos and officially launched The Trail Tree Project to locate, document and preserve CMT’s throughout the U.S. and Canada. Now, they have 2,570 CMT’s in their database covering 44 states. They have yet to officially identify CMT’s in North and South Dakota, Idaho, and Nevada.

Looking for these trees has become a science in itself, since each tribe bent and formed them differently. Most are species that were flexible saplings and had lengthy life spans, such as red oak, bur oak, pecan, eastern cedar, and ponderosa pine (which easily live 800 years).

The research takes a village! Anthropologists, archeologists, arborists, landscape architects, park rangers, paleobotanists (study fossil plants), cartographers, historians, photographers, ethnographic interviewers (talk to tribes), land surveyors, master gardeners and naturalists, dendrochronologists (measure tree ring growth), and of course, tribal elders.

It helps that Houser has climbed trees for over 40 years. He can interpret growth rings to understand a tree’s age and quickly recruit and train professionals to study every inch of a potential CMT. Bottom line, he says, “I have to find the right research that proves these trees have potential.”

Comanche are the first and only tribe to formally recognize CMT’s.

Comanche are the first and only tribe to formally recognize CMT’s. Unfortunately, the first of nine trees to receive an official tribal proclamation—a pecan in Gateway Park in East Dallas—died in a storm in 1998. It was identified as a Marker Tree, because it pointed to a Comanche campground. 

The Comanche Marker Tree trunks usually have a rainbow or half-moon shape and touched the ground before growing upward. A more recent Marker Tree is a 60-foot pecan in Holliday, Texas, that is still growing parallel to the ground and points to a nearby water source.

Anderson hopes the Utes will be the next tribe to formally recognize CMT’s. “Comanche stand out as a gold standard,” says Anderson, who has involved Southern Ute Tribal Elder James Jefferson, PhD, in his passionate hunt for “man-caused indicators,” like peeled bark patterns and tie-down marks where the tree was shaped. 

In 2015, they identified over 50 ponderosa CMT’s in Pineries Open Space, north of Colorado Springs, where the Ute, Cherokee, Comanche, and Cheyenne had an ongoing presence. Most of the trees were Trail Marker with one 30-degree bend to the trunk before it extends upward. They also identified: Burial with one 90-degree bend, likely pointing to an ancestor’s grave; Prophecy or Intertwined with two trees that were modified to grow together and believed to tell or foretell an event; Medicine or Peeled with a deep vertical indentation, where bark was cut and peeled off to extract cambium (contains calcium), sap, and other substances. Peeled portions were softer wood that they could use to build cradles and saddles. 

The Ute are well-known for Prayer or Spirit Tree, those with a story or message and that they believed contained the prayers of ancestors. “They would pray around a tree before modifying it to connect with the ancient ones,” Anderson explains.

They still do. At the opening of Association for Native American Sacred Trees and Places, located on historic land in Bailey, Colorado, President Jefferson demonstrated this ritual on a tour of remarkable CMT’s. First, he cautioned observers to spend time with a tree, rather than rushing to put it in a category and label it. 

“Use each of your senses to take in everything around a tree. You have to look at a tree’s surroundings—the rocks, the other trees . . . and listen.” 

Wells credits Jefferson for being a great mentor. He travels regularly to brief Jefferson and other tribal elders on his findings and always carries sacred tobacco in his pocket. 

“I sprinkle it and say a prayer to the tree, as simple as, “hey, we’ve come to visit, we’re here to honor you.”

Bent trees date way back

The tradition of bending and shaping trees dates back almost 2,500 years to bonsai. CMT researchers commonly acknowledge Paleobotanist Raymond Janssen, PhD, for his documentation in the 1900s of oak CMT’s throughout the Mississippi Valley and Midwest, mainly north of Chicago.

Other scientists and historians photographed and documented CMT’s in the early 1800s in the Great Lakes Region, according to Dennis Downes, founder of Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society. He has a copy of the first report of Trail Marker Trees in what is now Illinois, that appeared on “Map of Ouilmette Reservation,” dated 1828–1844. It shows existing Trail Marker Trees on a reservation and the cartographer’s printing reads, “Indian Trail Trees.”

Shaped by humans or nature?

The debate continues. Is it a CMT or just a tree deformed by lightening or other severe weather, farming, road construction, or vandalism? Or, did another tree fall on it?

Researchers candidly admit they’re not interested in such questions. Besides, they don’t have time. CMT’s are dying, and so are tribal elders. Finding authentic CMT’s is their full-time job because they want to help tribal elders leave a legacy.

Many naysayers perceive researchers as tree huggers who spend their day clicking around on Google Earth. Researchers wish it were that simple. Rather, they’re constantly on the move—from pouring over historic maps and books at Smithsonian and Native American museums to tromping through unfamiliar areas with GPS’s, measuring tape, topo maps, and cameras—desperately searching for one more CMT.

“We’re chasing rabbits,” Pelon quips. But at least, researchers now know the CMT must-have’s:

Age. Has to be minimum 100 years old. Dendochronologists use tree rings or “cookies” or a cross-section slice of a dead limb to study age. 

Trunk size. Has the original natural trunk, plus the new part that shot out and grew forward. 

Deep scar lines. Has visible lines around the trunk, where the sapling was tied down.

Houser gets goose bumps and teary-eyed when he thinks about the end goal. “It’s up to the Native Americans to decide,” he says, fondly recalling each time he takes 20-some Comanche elders on a bus to visit trees. 

If the Comanche say it’s a Marker Tree, then it is. If they say, this (tree) is a piece of history, it is. It’s such an honor for me to do this.

He defers to the wisdom of Arterberry, who always says, “All bent trees can be marker trees, but are not.”

Preserving his-trees

“There is no national law to preserve these trees and they need to be preserved,” says Wells. 

But, the CMT community has creative ways to protect and honor them. Downes works closely with tribal elders to hold ceremonies once a tree is fenced in with an educational display. These include a sugar maple Trail Marker Tree in Deerfield, Illinois, one of the last remaining of the Potawatomi; and the Traverse City Trail Marker Tree of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa.

Pelon wants to bring together landowners and tourists with her new preservation tourism project. It’s a chance for landowners with CMT’s on their land to create trails and co-guide tours with Pelon. 

“Trees are destinations,” she says, “and landowners love talking about their property!”

And, who doesn’t love trees? Whether a city slicker or suburbanite, everyone sees trees. CMT or not, trees are the keepers of stories and historical records. Maybe, they’re meant to keep everyone wondering. 

Jefferson’s still wondering. “It (CMT’s) is a mystery to everybody, even us who know a lot about the trees, and we were told a lot about them . . . all the information is a mystery.”

Writer’s note: This article was written out of profound respect for Native Americans as stewards of our land. 

Branch out, learn about CMT’s

Many organizations are working to ensure that CMT’s are accurately identified and protected from development, disaster or disease. Here are a few that accept tips through their websites on possible CMT’s, as well as offer educational events and resources:

Association for Native American Sacred Trees and Places

Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society

Mountain Stewards – The Trail Tree Project

Texas Historic Tree Coalition


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