Kenaitze Elders Kids Making Ornaments
Courtesy Kenaitze Indian Tribe
Elders and children work together to create hundreds of Alaska-themed ornaments for the Capitol Christmas tree.

Tree Beauty Pageant: Capitol Christmas Tree and Ornaments Coming From Alaska

Alysa Landry

When a 74-foot Lutz spruce begins its 4,000-mile journey this month from Alaska’s Chugach National Forest to Washington, D.C., it will include thousands of handmade ornaments designed to celebrate the 49th state.

The tree, selected to grace the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol, will be decorated with an estimated 2,000 mittens, drums, snowflakes and other symbols of Alaska. An additional 2,000 ornaments will decorate various smaller trees in government offices throughout the Capitol.

Felt mittens with hand-beaded embellishments are among the ornaments being made in Alaska. (Courtesy Kenaitze Indian Tribe)

Since the U.S. Forest Service in January announced that the “People’s Tree” would come from Chugach, more than 125 organizations—including students, community groups and Native Alaska tribes—have been crafting ornaments, said Mona Spargo, spokeswoman for the Chugach National Forest and coordinator for the 2015 Capitol Christmas Tree program.

“Organizations are donating hundreds of them,” she said. “We asked that the ornaments be made of materials found here, and that they have an Alaska theme. That means we have fish and moose. We have things made of wood, plant materials, even marine debris.”

Hand-stitched, miniature drums like this one will decorate the Capitol Christmas tree this year. (Courtesy Kenaitze Indian Tribe)

The 5.4-million-acre forest, located on the Kenai Peninsula of south-central Alaska, has been home to Native Alaskans for thousands of years, Spargo said. Alaskans still rely heavily on the forest for its natural habitat and economic opportunities.

The tradition of placing a Christmas tree on the west lawn of the Capitol began in 1964, and since 1970, a different national forest has been selected to provide the tree each year. This year marks the first time a tree has come from Alaska.

Tasked with finding the perfect tree, the Forest Service identified six contestants, Spargo said.

“I refer to it as the beauty pageant of trees,” she said. “We had several good candidates, but there were height requirements. The branches had to look good on all the sides.”

In May, Ted Bechtol, superintendent of the Capitol Grounds in Washington, D.C., visited the forest to choose the winning tree. Bechtol, who has selected the tree for the last 11 years, said he looks for one with “standout ornamental character” to show off each region’s unique culture.

“It’s a challenge every year to find what I think’s going to be the most perfectly shaped tree to go on the west lawn of the Capitol,” he said in a statement. Sending a tree to the Capitol is “a chance for the region to show off its natural resources on a big stage, but it also goes a step beyond that,” he said. “It’s a chance to show off the culture and historical resources of the state, or the culture of Native Americans who live there.”

Capitol Grounds Superintendent Ted Bechtol ponders the suitability of a candidate tree with Seward District Ranger Tom Malecek. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

The Forest Service keeps the location of the tree secret until the cutting ceremony, which this year will be October 27. The Qutekcak Native Tribe, near Seward, will host an official sendoff ceremony before the tree is wrapped for its long, cross-country journey—which includes a ship voyage from Anchorage to Tacoma, Washington, and a three-week trek by truck and trailer to the Capitol.

The Forest Service worked with several tribes from the Kenai Peninsula to produce ornaments, Spargo said. Camps and villages around the state made and donated hundreds of them.

More than 200 ornaments came from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, a community of about 1,600 people in Kenai, Alaska. The tribe jumped on the project when it learned the Capitol tree would be a spruce, said Sasha Lindgren, who organized the efforts.

Alaska’s Kenaitze Tribe made more than 100 ornaments that will represent the Native culture in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Kenaitze Indian Tribe)

“Spruce tree in our language is ch’wala, which means The Tree, with capital letters,” she said. “Medicine, shelter, food, everything comes from this tree. Our ch’wala is going to Washington and we wanted to be a part of that.”

About 50 tribal members gathered for a three-day ornament-making marathon, Lindgren said. Generations of Kenaitze worked side-by-side, with elders teaching youths how to use traditional ulu knives to cut rabbit skin for use on the ornaments.

More than 4,000 hand-made ornaments will adorn the Capitol Christmas Tree this year. (Courtesy Kenaitze Indian Tribe)

Although they worked to decorate a tree most of them will never see, the Kenaitze experienced the true spirit of the holiday season, Lindgren said.

“I don’t care what the ornaments look like,” she said. “I don’t even care if they get on the tree. What I care about is that we came together to do something, and the feeling in that room was wonderful. Kids were there for six hours talking to people they didn’t know and everyone was getting along because we were all there to send mittens down to President Obama.”

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