In Huu-ay-aht traditions, the resources of the forest, particularly the cedar tree, have special significance. Cedar wood and cedar bark both defined and surrounded the lives of Huu-ay-aht ancestors. From the time a newborn baby was swaddled in finely shredded bark and laid in a cedar cradle, to the time of death when one was wrapped in a cedar bark blanket and laid in a cedar coffin, cedar was an important part of everyday life. The Huu-ay-aht lived in cedar houses, cooked in cedar boxes, traveled in dugout cedar canoes, wore cedar bark clothes, and gathered and stored food in cedar baskets.
As recalled by elder Liz Happynook, groups of Huu-ay-aht women would travel to known groves of good cedar to obtain tree bark. A prayer of respect would be offered to the selected tree before the bark was stripped from the trunk. Next, the outer bark was peeled off, and the inner bark bundled and carried home. Using a variety of techniques, the bark was processed into a soft, flexible material that found many uses: bags and baskets, mats, box covers, diapers, hats, belts, rope, capes, blankets, nets, towels, amulets and more. Similarly, cedar trees were cut down, and the wood used for numerous purposes: houses, canoes, boxes, dishes, utensils and more. Trees that had bark removed from them decades ago, even centuries, today bear the scars. Trees cut down, or with wood removed, are also found today. They are known as culturally modified trees, or CMTs.
Within Huu-ay-aht traditions cedar, and its bark, are considered to have supernatural and healing qualities. Our stories tell us that cedar bark is regarded as medicine by supernatural beings, and that people traded it to gain special powers. Cedar bark was always an important component of healing ceremonies. The spirits of the cedars had to be treated with respect. People must prepare through the rituals of Uusimch for success in collecting cedar wood and bark, and for other ventures such as hunting, fishing or whaling.
Uusimch involves a cleansing bathing ritual, immersing oneself in cold water, scrubbing the body with bundles of medicine plants, sometimes including cedar bark, fasting, and offering prayers to the four Supernatural Chief deities.