Indigenous Use of Redwood
Redwood is a traditional material utilized by the Indigenous tribes in Humboldt County. Redwood has been employed most often as a source for housing and building supplies or canoes; the style of these objects tend to show similarities across groups both in attributes of design and function. The Yurok, Tolowa, and Wiyot tribes seemed to have had the highest reverence for the wood and so it became the most prominent within these communities—though the Hupa would often trade Cedar, which was a material they commonly built from, for Redwood.
Redwood was used in many other ways as well. Indigenous communities tended to use baskets for food storage; Redwood platters, in particular were always used for serving meat.. Redwood chests were used for storage within homes; often a few feet in length Yurok peoples would carve figurative war sculptures into redwood to signify commemoration of a particular battle.
Many Indigenous utilitarian Redwood items held greater cultural meaning and significance to the larger community. The Yurok appear to have held the deepest reverence for Redwood, not only for its material use but as a spiritual being. To the Yurok, Redwood was a living being, existing since the beginning of time itself, with creation stories and myths. One such legend recalls when Redwood spoke of how to create canoes to safely cross water; this creation story is one reason why their canoes are built from Redwood and often are symbolically compared to the body themselves.
Before 1850, Indigenous communities dwelled within ancestral homes close to what is now Trinidad, along the Lower Klamath River. Each home owned the rights to the land it was on and was passed on to the one who cared for the previous head of family as they died (this was typically another close family member). Traditionally, it was seen that because Redwood lived, so did their homes—the home was seen as the center of family identity. These Redwood structures consisted typically of a two or three pitch roof. The interior would have a circular walkway for storage surrounding a lower-than-ground level common area used for household activities and for sleeping. They would use split-redwood planks for walls and commonly had a small round opening for the door. Sweathouses would often have similar design structures, only simpler and usually fully underground; each home needed only a single pitch.
The Tolowa lived further out on the coast than other Indigenous communities; they observed many similar methods in utilizing and designing with Redwoods, (e.g. houses and canoes). Due to their closer proximity to the coast, the Tolowa tended to make more large sea-faring vessels. Though the Tolowa’s houses were similar in design as the Hupa and Klamath-region Indigenous communities, their construction intent was different. Tolowa’s villages were structured around “House Sites” and in coastal communities; they would have separate buildings for handling fish and tools.
The Wiyot utilized Redwood for many of the same uses as other Indigenous communities, though their houses tended to have a more complex style involving a two-or-three pitch roof, with a special cut made for the release of smoke. Wiyot homes were larger and were commonly occupied by more than one family.