What is an Indian Marker Tree?

Part 1

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

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 to not only mark a trail, but also to signal the presence of important features, some of which were critical for survival.

Today, some call these old road signs Indian marker trees.  They are known by others as trail treesthong trees, or culturally modified trees.  Years ago, Linda Pelon, one of the first anthropologists researching the subject, taught me the term of Indian marker tree.  I will stick with this name.

An Indian marker tree is a tree that was purposely bent over as a sapling and held in a bent position throughout most of its young life.  The trees were tied down using a thong of animal hide, which is where the name “thong tree” originated.  They were used to guide the American Indians to a source of water, a good place to cross a river, a campsite or other important natural features.  To those who could interpret their meaning, they were similar to a life-saving road sign.

Why are most folks not aware that Indian marker trees exist?  Many years ago, the American Indians were not fond of explaining all the details regarding their way of life to outsiders.  They always saw the need to live within the balance of nature and had a great reverence for all the glorious things that nature provided.  They were the ultimate stewards of our natural world, whereas the “white man” only saw endless opportunity.  “White man look—but not see.”

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 those trees that do exist.  A number of suspected Indian marker trees in the DFW area are currently being researched and more details are expected in the future.

A very inspired group of volunteers known as the “Mountain Stewards” have documented literally thousands of Cherokee Indian marker trees in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.  They created trail maps, presentations, and completed a soon to be released book on their research.  The organization’s president, Donald Wells, is an outstanding source of information and support for our regional research.

The exact shape and tree species may vary greatly.  The purpose for a tree to exist is seldom ever clear in the beginning of our research.  How the purpose relates to the shape is the subject of ongoing research.

There may be different shapes for some tribes, and the trees could have been used to mark tribal boundaries, signaling other tribes to stay away – much like “no trespassing” signs.

Although there is enough documentation on Indian marker trees to more than verify and confirm their existence, skeptics remain.

This Cherokee marker tree exhibits the typical sharp bend low on the trunk (near the ground) and a second sharp bend upward. Photo courtesy of the Mountain Stewards.
Gateway Park Comanche Indian Marker Tree, recognized in 1997. Photo courtesy of Linda Pelon.

These articles are written out of profound respect for our Native Americans as the greatest stewards our lands will ever know, and as a way to honor those that are “One with Nature”, according to Comanche Tribal Elder, James Yellowfish.