Every year during the holiday season, the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska sends a tree to decorate the governor’s mansion in Juneau. This year, it was Wrangell’s turn to provide the tree. At a Thursday ceremony, Wrangell’s tribe blessed the chosen pine tree before it was sent up north.
Tiny flakes of snow fell Thursday morning on the small crowd assembled at Shakes Island in Wrangell’s Inner Harbor to bless a towering conifer bound for Alaska’s capital city. Wrangell Cooperative Association citizen Virginia Oliver, whose Lingít name is Xwaanlein, wore a woven cedar hat and beaded gloves and carried a painted drum.
“Gunalchéesh, Ldakát yeewháan yak’éi ix̱wsateení, so good to see all of you,” Oliver greeted the crowd, “Yak’éiyi ts’ootat, good morning. Welcome onto the ancestral home of the Naanyaa.aayí.”
Volunteers held the 14-foot lodgepole pine to be blessed upright in front of the red and black bear carving which frames the Chief Shakes House doorway.
The tree was picked by the U.S. Forest Service’s Wrangell Ranger District. Acting district ranger Tory Houser says it’s important for the U.S. Forest Service that the pine tree be blessed by the people whose land it came from.
“We were able to sustainably harvest this tree from Etolin Island,” Houser said. “ It’s known as the Togetherness Tree, and like the trees that stand in the forest together, we are all stronger when we all stand together.”
The tree’s placement at the governor’s mansion coincides with the Christmas season, but it’s meant to represent more than just one winter holiday.
Tribal president Richard Oliver, whose Tlingit name is Xúns, expressed gratitude to the Forest Service, Coast Guard, and Wrangell High School’s Lingít language class for being there, as well as the tree itself.
“I’d like to thank the tree for giving itself up for the governor,” Oliver said. “It’s a very nice gift.”
To bless the 2021 Together Tree, tribal elders and the high school language learners sang while walking slowly around the tree, waving fronds of cedar. Some wore cedar hats or button blankets.
Wrangell tribal citizen Virginia Oliver explains that the cedar fronds used in the blessing are not just backyard trimmings.
“The [tribal] president asked a tree and took the bottom fronds and then he gave pieces to everybody,” she says.
Oliver says it’s not the first time the tribe has blessed a tree bound for Juneau.
“We’ve done this before, the last time a tree left,” she said.
That last time was in 2018, when the community procured the governor’s mansion tree shortly after Gov. Dunleavy was elected. The Forest Service says this is the fifth year in a row that the Together Tree for the governor’s mansion has come from the Tongass.
The 2019 Together Tree came from near Ketchikan, and last year’s came from the Petersburg Ranger District. It was delayed on its journey to Juneau when the Coast Guard Cutter Anacapa was rerouted to provide disaster assistance in the wake of the Haines landslides. But it got there in the end.
This year’s tree will be on display at the governor’s mansion in Juneau for the holiday season. The mansion will hold an open house on Dec. 7.
“It’s such a prestigious thing, I think, that it’s going to the governor’s mansion and it’s from Wrangell,” Virginia Oliver said. “So we just wanted to turn out and show a good showing for it and let the tree go.”
As tribal members sang Wrangell’s paddle song, volunteers carried the tree across the bridge between Shakes Island and the harbor parking lot, through the lot and down a ramp to the Coast Guard buoy tender Elderberry, the tree’s ride up to Juneau.