When the lights adorning the 2015 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree came on during a lighting ceremony at the Capitol in December, a 74-foot Lutz spruce stood in the glow – not far from members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.
For the tree, taken from Alaska’s Chugach National Forest, it was the end of a cross-country journey over land and sea.
For the tribe, it was the culmination of months of involvement around the first Capitol Christmas Tree to come from Alaska.
In September, tribal youth and Elders worked together to create culturally significant ornaments to decorate the tree. In October, Kenaitze representatives attended the ceremony when the tree was felled, offering a traditional blessing during the event. Then, in December, tribal leadership visited Washington DC to celebrate the lighting of the tree.
“I hope everyone realizes how much it means to us,” tribal Elder Sasha Lindgren said.
Lindgren was among those in attendance when the tree was cut 15 miles outside Seward alongside the Seward Highway in late October. The ceremony included remarks from U.S. Forest Service representatives, City of Seward Mayor Jean Bardarson and Kenaitze Indian Tribe Culture Bearer Jon Ross.
Ross offered a traditional blessing before the tree was felled. He walked around the tree in a circle, rubbed sage on the bark and placed tobacco on the ground beneath its branches – traditional symbols of honor and respect.
After the 74-foot Lutz spruce had been blessed, a chainsaw cut through its trunk as crews propped it up with a crane and harnesses. Soon, the crane lowered the tree onto a flatbed, and it was secured for the approximately 5,000-mile cross-country journey.
Ross said it was important to honor the tree before it was cut.
“Just to recognize the sacrifice of the tree, which is a living being with a spirit,” he said. “We’re taking its life, so it’s important to show respect.”
The Alaska SeaLife Center hosted a community celebration following the tree-cutting ceremony.
The Yaghanen Youth Program’s Jabila’ina Dancers and Del Dumi Drummers opened the celebration with performances near the center’s main entrance, greeting visitors with traditional song and dance. Tribal employees also were onsite cooking fry bread.
Esther Joseph, a fifth-grader at Mountain View Elementary who has been participating in Yaghanen programs since fourth grade, said it was fun to perform for a large audience.
And her strategy for performing in front of the big crowd? Simple.
“Smile,” she said.
Meanwhile, in Washington DC, tribal representatives participated in three events.
They attended a Chief’s Reception, where Executive Council member Bernadine Atchison spoke to the audience about the tribe’s government-to-government relationship with the U.S. Forest Service. Kenaitze’s delegation also performed traditional song and dance.
The group then attended the tree-lighting ceremony in front of the Capitol before participating in a reception hosted by Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the National Botanical Gardens.
The U.S. Forest Service began the tradition of selecting the Capitol Christmas Tree – also known as the “People’s Tree” – in 1964. The tree comes from a different national forest each year, and 2015 was the first year it came from Alaska.
“It’s a special thing for Alaska, to be able to highlight the beauty of our land and this tree for the rest of the world,” Ross said.