Western Red Cedar
Legacy of Use
Cathlapotle: A Monument to Cedar
By Peter Hayes
The recently rebuilt Cathlapotle plankhouse stands on the banks of the lower Columbia River, just upstream of the confluence with the Lewis River, on the western outskirts of Ridgefield, Washington. The monumental cedar building comprises a collage of horizontal and vertical poles and split planks. Massive posts rise from the earth to support long, straight roof beams. Wide, hand-split planks butt up against one another covering the sides, while even more beefy planks lap over one another to shed water from the roof. All cedar, of course; why not other plentiful local species like cottonwood?
The unique qualities of cedar make it easy to answer these questions. It often grows straight and tall and is strong both in compression and in carrying horizontal loads, making it ideal for posts and beams. Old trees produce knot-free logs that can be split into long, relatively thin planks. Its fine, often uniform, grain makes it ideal for artistic carving. And finally, being much more rot-resistant than any of its neighbors, makes cedar the wood of choice for withstanding degradation from rot in our wet climate.
Among the Chinookan-speaking peoples living in the 19 villages noted by Lewis and Clark along the Columbia from The Dalles to the mouth, Cathlapotle was considered to be among the largest and most powerful. Sadly, by the 1850’s it was reported that the once-vital village had become a casualty of the clash of cultures and was no longer occupied. It is believed that the survivors were assimilated into other native groups in the region, including the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Warm Springs.
In the spring of 2002 a group of Fish and Wildlife Service staff, archaeologists, tribal members, and community members came together to explore the possibility of honoring the village’s past and educating and organizing for the future by building the new plankhouse. Chinook tribal member, Greg Robinson, provided leadership as Project Manager. Volunteers were recruited and organized, 250 cedar logs were found through purchase and donation, planks were split and house posts were raised. By March 2005 the plankhouse was complete, dedicated, inhabited, and warmed and lit by new fires.
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