For Alice Guss the faded, indented lines she discovers on old cedar trees mark treasured signatures of her Squamish Nation ancestors.
Scattered throughout the forest they're a sign that her relatives were there, the bark weaver says. Guss almost tripped over the last one she found wandering through the woods near Cat Lake, Guss saw it — a faint line along a fallen cedar tree, the bark strip slightly sunken.
“Spring is the best time to harvest it because the sap is runny,” she says.
Just as her relatives had done hundreds of years ago Guss was scouting out cedar bark, bark she later soaked in water before transforming it into headbands, baskets and clothing.
The sight of the faded bark strip stopped her mid-stride. She thought of the stories she'd been told by elders; of women dangling from the bark's end like the bulb of a raindrop, pooling their weight in a joint effort to rip the strip off the tree. Some women preferred twisting it, twirling the strip around and around until finally the edges tears through.
In 1999, a few years after Guss was given her traditional name, Tsawaysia, she started collecting bark. It marked a shift in her life, a change that was brought about by a canoe trip that introduced her to her culture.
“That journey opened my eyes,” Guss says.
Today her way of life, culture and heritage are inseparable. And she's taken it upon herself to pass her knowledge to the next generation.
For approximately 20 years Guss worked in education as a tutorial aide and home-school co-coordinator with the Sea to Sky School District. For 12 years Guss was an education director for both the Squamish and Tsawwassen First Nations. She helped infuse the Squamish Nation culture into the school systems.
Next month Guss is hosting a workshop on wool weaving, cedar bark creations and drum making. It's her way of reaching out into the broader community, she says. The class will be held at her house on the Stawamus Reserve. On Saturday, Sept. 28, the workshop will kick off with the wool weaving at 9:30 a.m., followed by drum making at 11:30 a.m. and finishing with the cedar bark course at 2 p.m. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“A lot of the teachings are coming back,” Guss said of Squamish Nation culture. “More people are learning.”
For more information visit www.tsawaysia.com.