What is an Indian Marker Tree?

Part 2

The following article was written by Steve Houser and published in the Neil Sperry e-Gardens news www.neilsperry.com

Gateway Park Comanche Indian Marker Tree, recognized in 1997. Photo courtesy of Linda Pelon.

The purpose of discussing Indian marker trees in a public forum is to increase awareness of their existence and to recognize them as living witnesses to our history as well as priceless cultural treasures.  Indian marker trees should be celebrated, preserved, and properly maintained to ensure future generations have an opportunity to enjoy them.  All trees are lost over time.  Therefore, recognizing them beforehand seems to be a moral obligation.  In addition, the elders who have knowledge of Indian marker trees within the various tribes around the nation will not be around forever and any remaining knowledge of these trees must be recorded.  We cannot preserve significant trees or cultures that we have not taken the time to recognize, or fully understand.

According to tribal elders of various Indian nations, individual tribes had different styles of selecting and bending marker trees.  For example, Indian marker trees found in Florida may be from the Seminole tribe, where trees found in Alabama may be Choctaw or Chickasaw.  The form and function of each tree can vary considerably, but all of them served an important purpose that may not be clear without researching the surrounding area for clues and checking with various experts.  As an example, the California Crossing Marker Tree, in Dallas, signified a good area to cross the Trinity River with shallow water, an important fact to know many years ago.

Photo by Steve Houser

The California Crossing potential Marker Tree was reviewed by tribal elders and the Gateway Park Marker Tree (noted in the previous article) was officially recognized with a proclamation from the Comanche nation on April 26, 1997.  The proclamation notes that the site was a favored campground due to the abundant resources in the area.
Gateway Indian Marker Tree. Photo courtesy of Doug Taylor

Ironically, the entire top of the tree was broken off just above the long bend, during a subsequent storm on Memorial Day.  A section of the tree was preserved and used to date the age of the tree, which was over 400 years old.  In addition, an unsuccessful effort was made to revive the tree by planting saplings near the base and grafting the top growth into the trunk of the tree.

Guidelines to help distinguish between what may or may not be an Indian marker tree are currently being developed for the north Texas area.  A few important points include the following:

  • They must be at least 150-200 years old.  Quantifying their age will be the subject of a future article.
  • They are almost always a native tree species and likely to be long-lived for a given part of the country.  Without a doubt, the Native Americans were quite knowledgeable about the life expectancy and cultural habits of tree species.
  • They often include sharp bends in the trunk, which would have required an acute knowledge regarding the biological function of a tree’s vascular system.  To create the bend, often called a “hip”, may have required the removal of bark and underlying tissues.  If any of the bends in the trunk are higher above the ground level than a person could have created from standing on the ground, the tree may not be an Indian marker tree.
  • They are often associated with significant natural features such as a tree recently submitted in Bowie, which marks a natural spring.
  • They are often associated with witness reports and records that indicate arrowheads or other artifacts were once found in the area.
  • They may show injury scars along the trunk, resulting from the thongs that tied them down, or possibly wounds created to maintain their bend.
Trunk Scars. Photos by Steve Houser

Trees that are not Indian marker trees, but may have a similar bend, are typically trees that are blown over, or forced over by ice and snow accumulations.  These trees will often show exposed roots on one side of the trunk and a mound of soil created when the roots are forced upward and the trunk goes over.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Stewards
Photo courtesy of Mountain Stewards

To the skeptics that say nature, not Indians, created these trees, I would pose a simple question:  How could nature create two trees near each other (termed “doublets”) or even three trees close together?

Native Americans understood, celebrated, and lived in complete harmony with all aspects of our natural world.  They were the ultimate stewards of our lands and they understood the importance of maintaining a healthy balance in any ecosystem–something we should carefully consider in determining how we live in the future.





About the author: Steve Houser is a Dallas native with more than 32 years of experience as a consulting arborist and tree climber.