Photo Gallery: Capitol Christmas Tree Heading to DC

Photo Gallery: Capitol Christmas Tree Heading to DC

Konnie LeMay


Think a couple months after Halloween is a long time to wait for Christmas? Imagine how it is for the students at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in Cass Lake, Minnesota.

They’ve been planning for this Christmas season since March.

Their holiday payoff will come December 2, when Speaker of the House John Boehner lights the Christmas tree at the U.S. Capitol and 700 handmade ornaments, many with Ojibwe words, adorn its branches. Among the crowds there for the lighting will be about 180 Ojibwe youth, chaperones and elders.

And the tree itself—the 88-foot-tall white spruce that will stand as a beacon throughout the holidays—also came from the Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation in northern Minnesota. So far it has traveled more than 2,400 miles by truck to the nation’s capital. It’s progress and the nearly 30 stops along its route can be tracked online.

The tribe became tied to the Christmas celebrations in Washington, D.C. when that spruce was chosen last year from the Chippewa National Forest. Some 90 percent of that forest is within reservation boundaries, including the portion where the tree was located. It is the only national forest overlapping within a reservation. The forest service has provided the nation’s tree for 45 years.

The white spruce was harvested October 29 during an afternoon filled with ceremonies, but activities around the tree started in March with the efforts to create hundreds of ornaments through the “Bug school,” as it is fondly called. The school’s academic intervention specialist, Carol Kloehn, nicknamed “Christmas Carol” even before this year’s splash of activities, volunteered to take on the task. The students and their parents have created more than 1,000 ornaments—700 for the tree and 300 to bring to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian—where Leech Lake students will give a drum and dance exhibition while they are in D.C.

RELATED: Video: Leech Lake Youth Sing Honor Song for Capitol Christmas Tree

The ornaments reflect the region and the Ojibwe culture, using birch, beads and feathers. Many of the ornaments represent animals or birds, using both the English and Ojibwe names, a request made by Leech Lake elders.

“I first talked with the elders, that was so important to me. I know we’re doing it in the right way,” said Kloehn.

Kloehn and a group of students came to Duluth, Minnesota on November 5 for a tree event at the local walk-through lighting display, in Bentleyville. They performed examples of pow wow dance styles and Nakaya Losh, chosen “senior princess” for the school’s royalty this year, gave a greeting in Ojibwe and English. Losh, who is 11, will be among the youngest of the children traveling to the lighting in Washington. Most of the students will be from the 7th through 12th grades.

The community is trying to raise $130,000 to hire four to five buses to take the children and elders for the special event. Many tribal employees are donating $5 to $50 per paycheck to help, local businesses have donated a rifle, cars and a snowmobile to auction and there have been other fundraising activities. There is also a funding effort on indiegogo where people can donate. Response has been slow, but Ryan White, public affairs officer with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, hopes it picks up some traction. Plans are to leave the reservation November 30 and do a 24-hour ride to Washington, D.C.

This is the second time the tribe has been involved in providing the nation with its Christmas tree. In 1992, another tree was chosen from the Chippewa National Forest and the then 16-year-old Penny Devault was among the 22 students from Deer River High School to travel to the nation’s capital.

This year, Devault, now a tribal council representative, plans to drive there with her children to give them the experience she had.

As a teenager, Devault was excited for the opportunity to visit Washington because her great grandfather, George Wakefield, had made the trip decades before to negotiate on behalf of the tribe. She grew hearing stories from her grandmother, Susan Jackson, about that trip, saw the important papers he had brought back and heard about how he “went to Washington, D.C., got all dressed up and came back eating peas with a knife.”

“I was just a little girl sitting in the woods with my grandma,” Devault recalled. She had decided way back then, “Yeah, I’ll go to Washington, too.”

When she went as a teenager with the national Christmas tree, she was thrilled to see the monuments, to visit the historic sites, but especially remembers thinking it was “really cool that we had a tree from our woods, and that it was the tree that was going to be in Washington.”

She believes her children will enjoy and remember this year’s trip, too.

Crystal Redgrave, superintendent of the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig schools, knows the trip to Washington can broaden the students’ experience. But the tree has already provided many opportunities for students to learn about natural resources, the types of trees in northern Minnesota and geography lessons about what lies between their Cass Lake community and Washington, D.C.

She plans to join the group as a chaperone, even though, she jokes, she’ll have plenty of work waiting when she gets back. “I’m going to remember this trip much more than any day I sit behind the computer.”

Her students will, too.


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