Trees as Historical Markers and Holders of Memory

Two pine trees and a chapel building in the distance

Pine trees on the front lawn of the Algoma/Shingwauk site. Photo by author.

Krista McCracken

There are two pines trees on the front lawn of Algoma University. The trees sit off centre on the east side of the lawn, partially hidden behind the historical Chapel building from the road. To the casual observer these trees might seem relatively ordinary, perhaps a bit oddly placed, but not of any clear significance. The pine trees blend into the landscape of the University and don’t have any distinguishing characteristics in terms of size and shape.  

Algoma University is located on the site that housed the Shingwauk Indian Residential School from 1874-1970. The Shingwauk School was named after Ojibway Chief Shingwaukonse, who was a leader in Anishinaabe thought and advocacy. The Anishinaabemowin word Shingwaukonse translates to Little Pine and the word Shingwauk means pine tree.

The two pine trees situated on the front lawn of Algoma/Shingwauk were planted during the 1991 Shingwauk Reunion as a way to commemoration the history of the Shingwauk Residential School and the Shingwauk/Algoma site. [1] The trees were planted next to a monument marking the location of the original Shingwauk School building, which was torn down in 1935 when new Shingwauk Hall opened. The trees represent the work of Shingwauk Survivors to ensure that their experiences and the legacy of the Residential School System is never forgotten. These trees are also part of an ongoing effort to reclaim the Shingwauk site as a space of cross-cultural learning and healing.

I pass by these trees every day and I’ve had the privilege of sitting with Survivors who were at the 1991 Reunion and hearing them speak about the planting of the pine trees. The location, story, and preservation of these trees matters. While engaged in historical tours of the Shingwauk site staff often stop at the two pine trees. This stop is used to explain the significance of a trees and is an opportunity to talk about language, honouring the past, and preserving the history of Shingwauk.

The idea of trees as markers and keepers of history is not something new. Since time immemorial Indigenous peoples have had relationships with trees. And in writing this post, I want to acknowledge the depth of ecological knowledge of the Indigenous peoples of this land. Trail marker trees are an example of Indigenous communities using trees as markers, signage, and directional aids. Trees can also have a cultural importance. For example, the Eastern White Pine or the Great Tree of Peace is recognized as a representing the unity and strength of the Haudenosaunee confederacy.

Individual tree and entire species of trees can have interesting pasts. Andrea Eidinger’s Unwritten Histories post focusing on the history of lilacs in Canada points the complex history of trees, symbolism, and landscape. In Ontario there is the Heritage Tree Program which tells the stories of historically significant trees. In addition a number of municipalities have designated trees under the Cultural Heritage Landscape provisions of the Ontario Heritage Act or have by-laws specific to heritage tree preservation.

How can trees tell stories about the past? How can they be integrated into historical interpretation and preservation plans? In recent years the Sault Ste. Marie Jane’s Walk offerings have included a walk focused on the historical trees of the city. Guided by local forestry expert Jeff Hinich, these walks have included  stop at the city’s oldest tree, a visit to the rarest species of tree found in the city, and information about how tree planting impacted the look and design of neighbourhoods in the Sault.

As part of this years Jane’s Walk in Sault Ste. Marie, I attended a walk hosted by Michael Burtch which went from Topsail Island to the Old Town Cemetery. The walk was framed by discussing George Catlin’s 1837 painting “Canoe Race Near Sault Ste. Marie” and how the landscape of the waterways and parkland in Sault Ste. Marie has changed over the years. Despite not specifically focusing on trees, this walk challenged participants to think about the ages of trees, trees as witness, and trees as windows into the past.

As we enter into Spring and warmer weather I want to challenge folks to to think about a couple of things: What trees do you walk by on daily basis? What stories do they have to tell? I don’t have all of the answers. But, I am interested in learning more about the trees that surround me.[2]

Krista McCracken (They/Them) lives and works on Robinson-Huron treaty territory, in the traditional homeland of the Anishinaabe and Métis. Krista is a Researcher/Curator at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and an editor of Activehistory.ca.


[1] A pine tree was also planted at the 1981 Shingwauk Reunion. However, that tree was involved in a landscaping mishap and the Survivors replanted in 1991.

[2] A huge thank you to Andrea Eidinger who was open to discussing trees and plants as I was thinking about this post.

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