On this Christmas Eve I am reminded of the magnificent tree we delivered to the U.S. Captiol in Washington D.C. Over the past several weeks I’ve reported on the long journey of the People’s Tree from the Chugach National Forest of Alaska that the Kenaitze First Nation Tribe called Ch’wala ka’a. When this 74-foot Lutz Spruce was dedicated on December 2, 2015 tribal members gathered in the halls of Congress to share songs and stories of their heritage that reflect a deep and profound relationship with the natural world. As part of the ceremony Kenaitze Elder Bernadiene Atchison shared a wonderful tale of how the spruce tree Ch’wala came to be sacred to her people. With her premission here is the text of her presentation.
It is a pleasure and honor to be here today as a part of the Kenaitze Delegation. Before I begin in accordance with the protocol of my Tribe I offer thanks and acknowledgements.
First to those who came before me, my Elders, my teachers, and my Grandmother, who bravely moved in the direction of protecting Yaghanen, the Kenai Peninsula, and realizing the importance of creating partnerships that respect one another and strengthens our ties to the land as caretakers today and for future generations to come.
Second to the many friends (Ida’ina) we have made within the Forest service who initiated “government to government consultation” with our Tribe over 30 years ago, which a mutually beneficial partnership between the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service resulted.
Support for the partnership came from the Forest Service’s Alaska Region leadership and staff, Chugach Forest Service leadership and staff, the Seward Ranger District, our Tribal Council, Tribal administration, Cultural Program, Elders, youth and our community.
This partnership built on a framework of mutual respect and willingness to work together illustrates what “government to government consultation” can be. In recognition of this partnership we have traveled to celebrate with you today.
The story of the Ch’wala, spruce tree, What I will share with you is part of a legend told to me by my elder Alexandra “Sasha” Lindgren, which was told to her by her Dena’ina grandmother, Luba Lindgren.
In Dena’ina time, on Yaghanen, the good land, there was first the time when only plants and animals were present. A second time period began with the coming of the “campfire people” as the plants and animals referred to the Dena’ina. And then the third time period began with Euro-American contact and continues today. This story took place when the first two periods overlapped.
The Dena’ina were busy learning about each plant and animal, observing their interactions. The plants and animals were studying the habits and activities of the Dena’ina. The plants and animals observed that the Dena’ina formed many partnerships, men and women married, men had hunting and fishing partners, women developed partnerships with other women for berry picking and gathering.
The plants and animals decided that they too should have a partner. When they met to choose partners, no one wanted to be the partner of dog. He wasn’t serious enough, chased his own tail, and played with sticks. Dejected, tail and ears down, dog began to walk away from the meeting. But then his ears popped up, his tail curled back over his back, and dog turned around three times, and then told the other animals: “that is fine, I will go and be a partner to the Campfire people and I will always tell them when you are near.” Dog became our beloved partner. (So beloved that the Den’ina word for sweetheart, is / ika’ha, which may be translated as little dog).
During this meeting no other tree chose to be the partner of Ch’wala, spruce tree. His bark was not white and smooth like birch tree. It is rough and pitted, oozes pitch. He did not have leaves that rippled in the wind like aspen, his needles stayed the same boring green color and did not change to orange and red like cottonwood.
So Ch’wala told the other trees, “that is okay, I will become the partner to the Dena’ina” and he did. Ch’wala, means the TREE in capital letters. Ch’wala grows straight and tall to provide us with shelter and heat. We make spring tonic from his new needles, medicine and glue from his pitch. His scent is our medicine, beds made from interlace spruce boughs, provide restful sleep to those in need of comfort and strength. No other tree offers as much to the Dena’ina. The tree that came to you from Yaghanen carries his ancestor’s story of partnerships, and we join you in celebrating his beauty and the part he plays in this time, of celebration and peace.
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