What is an Indian Marker Tree?

Pictured above is the Gateway Comanche Marker Tree. Unfortunately, this tree was lost to storm damage. Photo courtesy of Doug Taylor.

Historically, living in complete harmony with nature has been a way of life for the American Indian. They relied on Nature for all their needs. Many years ago, traveling from place to place required good navigational skills, directions along the way, and a method to mark common trails. American Indians used trees not only to mark a trail but also for many other reasons, some of which were critical for survival.

Why are most folks not aware that Indian marker trees exist? Many of the American Indian tribes are not fond of explaining all the details regarding their previous way of life to outsiders. They were once told to leave their culture behind and join the American society. 

These significant trees are often called Indian marker trees, trail trees, thong trees, or culturally modified trees. An Indian marker tree is a tree that served one or more purposes and some were bent over as a sapling and held in a bent position throughout most of its young life.

Trees were often used by the Comanche as “trail or turning trees” which indicated a direction or they could be a burial, ceremonial, or service tree.

For over 25 years, the Texas Historic Tree Coalition has been working closely with the Comanche Nation Tribal Elder Council, the Comanche Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, as well as other Comanche officials, in an effort to formally recognize Comanche Marker Trees. The Comanche were the first Indian nation to recognize these trees as a part of their cultural heritage.

Most of the Comanche Tribal Elder Council members have visited the trees they officially recognized in the past and expressed that these trees were a part of their longstanding tradition. Most recently, a tree in Holliday Texas was officially recognized with over fifty Tribal officials in attendance.  

Nature can create bent trees such as those which are blown over, or forced over by ice and snow accumulations. These trees will often show exposed roots on one side of the trunk as a mound of soil is created when the roots are forced upward and the trunk falls over. Just because a tree is bent or it has an odd shape does not make it a marker tree. In the same token, odd-shaped trees created by nature could have been used by the Comanche for a specific purpose. In some cases, they were used to mark a trail or other natural features, even though nature created their odd shape. We use sound science, education, and a tribal-based process to complete an extensive amount of research on any tree considered for official status.   

The California Crossing Comanche Marker Tree in Dallas, Texas.

The book entitled Comanche Marker Trees of Texas, published by Texas A&M University Press was written to educate the public about the subject. It is the first book on Indian marker trees that is science-based and includes an anthropologist, a tribal historic preservation officer, and an expert in arboriculture. All proceeds from the book received by the primary author (Steve Houser) are donated to the Texas Historic Tree Coalition and a worthy Comanche Nation cause.

Indian marker trees are the living witnesses to the history of a past civilization and their incredible way of life. Indian marker trees are a significant part of this nation’s cultural heritage and a gift to our current society. They provide lessons about our past and lessons yet to be learned, but their life expectancy is limited. This underscores an urgency to study and document as much information as we can about the trees that do exist.   

These trees should be celebrated, preserved, and properly maintained to ensure future generations have an opportunity to enjoy them. Since all trees are lost over time, 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 should be recorded. We cannot preserve significant trees or cultures that we have not taken the time to recognize, or fully understand.