The Southern Ute Indian Tribe joined the other Ute tribes Dec. 3 and 4 in Washington, D.C., to witness the end of the journey of two very special Christmas trees.
They had also been there for the beginning. A month before, on Nov. 2, elders from each of the three Ute tribes traveled to Meeker, Colo. — part of the ancestral homelands of the Northern Utes — to bless the trees before cutting and loading onto trailers, one bound for the U.S. Capitol and the other for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The NMAI tree was again blessed on Monday, Dec. 3, after it had been placed outside the museum’s east entrance with lights and ornaments hung. Tribal elders Alden Naranjo of Southern Ute, Terry Knight of Ute Mountain Ute and Clifford Duncan of Northern Ute performed the second ceremony before a group of roughly 30 tribal members who had made the trip.
Naranjo, who also participated in the tree blessings in Meeker, said the spirit of cooperation that brought the trees to Washington marked a stark change from the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers when they first arrived in North America.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said.
Naranjo also thanked the NMAI staff for taking care of the Ute artifacts in its collection.
Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor of the White River National Forest, said he was “overwhelmed by the participation and involvement” of the Ute tribes in the process of getting the tree to Washington. He also gave a nod to the Utes’ history on the land from which the trees came.
“We’re nothing more than stewards of your ancestral land,” he said.
Ken Coffin, ranger of the Blanco Ranger District where the trees were found, thanked the tribes for their help creating ornaments. Those ornaments adorned the NMAI tree, the Capitol tree, and other smaller trees in offices around Washington.
“It really made this project just that much more special,” he said, adding that some of his favorites were made by tribal elders.
Knight said the NMAI tree, a subalpine fir, carried a spiritual essence visitors to the museum would be able to feel.
“Some people don’t understand it, but they’re going to feel good about it,” he said.
The following evening, festivities before the lighting of the Capitol tree kicked off with a U.S. Forest Service Chief’s Reception at the Department of Agriculture. Several federal government heavyweights attended, including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
Tidwell spoke about the symbolic power of the tree to heal some of the emotional damage Coloradans suffered during a summer fraught with wildfires.
“This tree speaks volumes about that spirit,” he said.
Vilsack said he was pleased to welcome the Ute tribes to Washington and also thanked former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, an Ignacio resident, for driving the truck that carried the Capitol tree 5,000 miles across the country.
“It’s a special place for America, this place called Colorado,” Vilsack said.
Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman called the tree “the best darn Capitol Christmas tree I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Following the reception, the tribal visitors moved to the east lawn of the U.S. Capitol, where the tree — a 73-foot-tall Engelmann spruce — stood covered in lights and homemade ornaments. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., and Sens. Michael Bennet and Tom Udall, both D-Colo., spoke briefly, acknowledging the contributions of their home state and the Ute tribes.
Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, then flipped the switch with the help of Ryan Shuster, a student and eagle scout from Colorado Springs.
Wrapping up the evening was a reception hosted by Colorado’s Congressional delegation at the NMAI. In attendance was Campbell, who told the Drum that the Forest Service names the Capitol tree every year, usually after a woman. On Campbell’s advice, the tree was named after a Southern Ute tribal elder — becoming the Annabelle Eagle Capitol Christmas tree.