Victoria-based Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cook enjoys sharing stories about the “tree of life” in his culture. Also known as the cedar tree, it was the focus of his master’s thesis at the University of Victoria, which he completed last year.
“The tree of life has given us everything from our big houses to canoes to masks to bark we pull and harvest to making baskets and regalia—all of that,” Cook tells the Straight by phone. “So I started to ask a really big question: who are we as a living culture without the old growth? Without cedar trees?”
It wasn’t just a question for his First Nation. It was also deeply personal.
“Who am I as an artist—as an Indigenous artist from the Northwest Coast—if there’s no more old growth to carve from?” Cook continues.
And how can he continue to be a storyteller without old-growth cedar trees as his partner in this endeavour?
It’s something that isn’t generally discussed in connection with the destruction of ancient forests across the land now known as British Columbia.
The B.C. government states on its website that 15 percent of the timber-harvesting land base in the province is old-growth forests. According to Sierra Club B.C., only three percent of old-growth forests “with huge, old trees are still standing—and most are on the chopping block”.
Directed by Cam William MacArthur, it brings forth the voices of Cook, Finding the Mother Tree author Suzanne Simard, forest photographer T J Watt, and the land defenders at Fairy Creek to bring forth their perspectives.
While researching his master’s thesis, Cook was struck by Simard’s scientific research into how trees communicate with one another—and how that mirrored what he was taught growing up in Alert Bay off northern Vancouver Island.
“There are stories that talk about tree communication—and our relationship with the trees—where we would communicate and ask for gifts,” Cook says, “and, essentially, we would be granted those gifts through ceremony and ritual. But we knew [the forest] was a living organism. We knew that it would bless us in many different ways.”
He finds it heartbreaking to see the demise of old-growth forests, noting that it happens very quickly with today’s modern machinery.
Last summer, for example, Cook returned to his traditional territory and watched firsthand as the industry blasted and plowed an area within two weeks.
"They had a full road and wiped out this entire valley bottom," he recalls. "It's devastating but the public doesn't see it. They don't even know what's happening."
The artist adds that MacArthur’s film addresses this issue in very raw and direct way.
“It leaves the questioning out in the open: what are we actually doing to this planet? And what are we doing to each other?” Cook says.
As for his own art, he’s shifted to working with materials other than cedar as a way of making a statement on the world.
“We can evolve as artists to help bring awareness,” Cook says. “For me, it’s, ‘Let’s leave the trees standing and adapt to move forward.’ I’ve been heavily focused on that in my own work.”