Arbor Day 2014: Recognizing Native Americans



Andrew Johnson and Dennis Downes explain what Native American trail landmark trees are.

Last Saturday, April 26, Barbara and I went to a fascinating Arbor Day ceremony at Crow Island Park in Winnetka, Illinois, north of where we live in Evanston. The Winnetka Park District recognized the Native American heritage of northern Illinois by holding a tree planting ceremony to create a Council Circle of newly planted trees. About 25 people attended.

Leading the ceremony were Andrew Johnson, the Executive Director of the American Indian Center of Chicago, and Dennis Downes, a local artist and sculptor and the author of Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness.These were trees that the Potawatomi and other native people used, giving distinctive shapes to certain trees to mark trails. Dennis’s book is a fascinating account of these trees and is filled with wonderful photographs.

The ceremony started with an introduction by Robert Smith, the Executive Director of the Winnetka Park District. Dennis then explained what trail marker trees are–and the fact that he has been fascinated by them since he was young. Andrew emphasized the importance of recognizing Native American history in the Chicago region.


Andrew and Dennis plant the first tree–a swamp oak.

The whole group then moved to an open space in the park, where the circle would be created by planting 24 oak trees, which were native to the region and were central to Native American culture. Andrew and Dennis started by planting the largest of the trees–a swamp oak that stood about eight feet tall with a root ball that weighed more than 100 pounds. They wrestled it into the hole that had been dug by workers from Nels Johnson Tree Experts, a local tree service.


Andrew leads a smudging ceremony.

Andrew then used smoke to cleanse the tree and send it healing energy. After that, the rest of us took turns planting smaller trees, which included swamp oaks for the wetter part of the field and white oaks and bur oaks for the drier portions. These baby oaks will take decades to grow to their full height, but it will be fun to watch them mature. They’ll serve practical, aesthetic, and spiritual purposes. Like all trees, they’ll store carbon from the atmosphere and help to cleanse local water. They will add significantly to the beauty of Crow Island Park. And they will remind us that the earth is continually replenishing itself–and that we humans can help the process. It was an impressive and touching ceremony!