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Events to honor Council Oak, Indigenous Peoples Day at UW-Eau Claire

| Julie Poquette

A celebration of the Council Oak tree on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus will be held at 11 a.m. Monday, Oct. 12, in recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day. The event will be held at the site of the tree just west of Davies Center.

At noon following the Council Oak celebration, a faculty presentation and student panel in Woodland Theater of Davies Center will discuss the history of Columbus Day and significance of Indigenous Peoples Day.

Both the Council Oak and Indigenous Peoples Day events are open to the public.

UW-Eau Claire alumna Denise Sweet, a member of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) Nation, will be among the speakers during the Council Oak celebration. Sweet, now a UW-Green Bay professor emerita who also served as Wisconsin’s second poet laureate, was the event coordinator for the 1990 planting and dedication of the current Council Oak. She was a UW-Eau Claire graduate student at the time and an advocate on campus for Native American studies who spoke as a guest lecturer to students about the history of First Nations people.

Also speaking at the Council Oak event will be UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt and Paul Soulier, co-president of UW-Eau Claire’s Inter-Tribal Student Council. The Blackdeer drum group from Black River Falls will provide drum songs, and civic leaders from the Eau Claire area will attend.

Dr. Heather Moody, assistant professor of American Indian studies, and Dr. Andrew Sturtevant, assistant professor of history, will deliver the noon presentation on the history of Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day. The student panel to follow will include members of the Inter-Tribal Student Council, who will discuss their personal experiences of the significance of Indigenous Peoples Day.

In light of a UW-Eau Claire Student Senate resolution a year ago to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day on campus, Oct. 12 seemed an appropriate day to mark the 25th anniversary of the current Council Oak tree, Wrasse said, noting that the idea to recognize the Council Oak on Indigenous Peoples Day was suggested by Soulier, a student senator in addition to his role as co-president of UW-Eau Claire’s Inter-Tribal Student Council.  

“I’m proud that the Student Senate got behind Indigenous Peoples Day, as it recognizes the harm that Native Americans endured during Columbus’s colonization of the ‘New World’ while also creating an opportunity to educate people about Native American culture,” Wrasse said. “Recognizing Indigenous People’s Day and the importance of the Council Oak brings us closer and closer to understanding the deep cultural traditions that exist at UW-Eau Claire. Though they often go unrecognized, these traditions are as fundamental and alive today as the Chippewa River that flows through our community.”

The Council Oak “stands as a symbol of UW-Eau Claire’s commitment to serving as a place of meeting and exchange,” reads a sign that will be unveiled at the tree site as part of the celebration. That symbolism originated with the first Council Oak, a majestic tree which stood on a site that may have served as a meeting place for leaders from the Ojibwe and Dakota nations to discuss peaceful resolutions to their differences during the 18th and 19th centuries. Those discussions, called councils, resulted in naming the tree the Council Oak.

The current Council Oak tree was planted and dedicated in 1990 after the original Council Oak, which had been damaged by lightning in 1966, fell in a windstorm in 1987. Elders from the Ojibwe and Ho-Chunk nations participated in the sunrise planting ceremony.

The tree selected to replace the original Council Oak is a bur oak, a variety that is difficult to transplant, Sweet said. However, over the years she would receive reports from people that “it seemed as though the Council Oak had weathered the storm.”  

“When I would come through Eau Claire, I would stop by at UW-Eau Claire to see for myself,” Sweet said. “I noticed people had left little stones, tobacco, tiny bundles of sage, little notes, little ribbons tied to its branches.  Science tells us that it is possible that plants feel the positive attention we extend to them. Maybe the Council Oak grows strong and vital for us because of our prayers, our songs and the ongoing attention we give to it.  The Council Oak has helped us to feel better about ourselves as we move history in a different direction.”

Photo caption:  The original Council Oak tree, circa 1960.