The Christmas tradition of setting up a “People’s Tree” on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol is personal this year for those native to Western North Carolina.
Both the 78-foot red spruce tree, named Ruby, and the youth tree lighter, Catcuce “Choche” Micco Tiger, are from WNC, and both are deeply connected to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Tiger is a citizen of the EBCI, which gave its blessing to the red spruce, according to a collection of press releases from the United States Forest Service.
“Our family is excited and humbly honored that Coche was selected to be the 2022 Youth Christmas Tree Lighter,” the Tiger family said through Adrianne Rubiaco, a spokesperson for the Forest Service. “This creates the opportunity for Coche to represent the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and to emphasize that the Tribe’s language and customs are thriving in modern times.”
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Since the red spruce was harvested in the Pisgah National Forest, the ancestral lands of the Cherokee people, the Tiger family said this year’s People’s Tree presents a unique opportunity to highlight the EBCI language and tradition of storytelling on a national platform.
Tiger will share the Cherokee legend of the evergreen trees and his Cherokee introduction during various events in Washington, D.C., the release said. The tree’s lighting will take place at a special event on Nov. 29, which can be viewed in person or on the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Facebook page.
Tiger, who is 9 years old, attends New Kituwah Academy language immersion school in the town of Cherokee, where he learns to read, write and speak the Cherokee language, according to a press release. He was chosen, the release said, based on his answers to a number of questions about the environment and his Cherokee culture.
“I want to go to Washington, D.C. to light the tree so I can represent the Tribe and my community and so everyone can have a good year. I also want to see where the president lives and maybe meet him,” Tiger said in response to one of the questions, according to the release.
The environment is important to Cherokee culture, Tiger said in response to another question, shown by the Cherokee’s historical stewardship of the forest and a traditional dance done at the Raven Rock stomp grounds in the Big Cove community, where Tiger is a member.
“I love stomp dance because it is what our ancestors once did to pray and show appreciation for everything we have,” Tiger said in the release. “We go to stomp to help renew ourselves and help the earth renew herself. So, we need a clean and healthy environment to honor what the creator has given us.
“Our environment is so important because my ancestors lived on this land, and I want to take care of it like they did. Also, the animals live in the environment, and I want to take care of them because they are related to me,” he continued.
He is supported by his parents, Katie and Catcuce Tiger, and his 6-year-old brother named Sha-li-gu-gi, which means “snapping turtle” in Cherokee. Tiger also has ancestry from the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, according to the release.
“He gets his name from his dad, which is a Seminole name. Catcuce means ‘Little Tiger,’ Micco means ‘Leader/Chief’ in the Creek language,” the release said.
Ruby and its journey
Ruby grew for 75 years on a hillside deep in the Pisgah National Forest until it was chosen to be this year’s People’s Tree by the Forest Service, the release said. Ruby’s parents flourished on the same sacred ancestral lands under the care of Tiger’s Cherokee ancestors.
The red spruce arrived in the Capitol on Nov. 18, according to a press release, but the journey was not an easy one. Ruby faced heavy competition and passed rigorous selection criteria, the release said, even facing an in-person inspection by a representative from the Architect of the Capitol, the agency responsible for managing the buildings and grounds of Capitol Hill.
The tree will now be decorated with thousands of ornaments made by school children and communities from all over North Carolina, the release said.
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Ruby’s selection represents the third time The People’s Tree has come from Pisgah National Forest. The link between the Forest Service and the Pisgah National Forest stretches back even further, as Gifford Pinchot, the first chief for the Forest Service, ran early experiments into forest management on the land when it was still owned by George Vanderbilt.
Ruby will leave a legacy behind, an earlier news release about the tree said because as part of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Program, the Forest Service has partnered with the National Forest Foundation to raise upwards of $250,000 for a “state-of-the-art” nursery to grow red spruce seedlings, which will be managed by the Southern Highlands Reserve.
“We are very excited to partner with the U.S. Forest Service and Southern Highlands Reserve on efforts to restore this unique , high-elevation, spruce-fir forests of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia,” Mark Shelley, director of eastern programs for the National Forest Foundation, said in the release. “We are actively working to create a supply of trees to meet these restoration goals.”
Ruby’s name is a shortened version of the spruce’s scientific name, Picea rubens.
History of The People’s Tree
The tradition of the Capitol Christmas Tree, The People’s Tree, began in 1964 when John W. McCormack, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, placed a live Christmas tree on the Capitol lawn, according to the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree website.
That tree lived three years, and in 1970, the Capitol Architect asked the Forest Service to provide a new Christmas tree, the website said. Since then, a different national park is chosen each year to provide the next tree, and the process now includes a public engagement campaign to celebrate the country’s national forests.
It is called The People’s Tree because it is a gift from the people’s public lands to the U.S. Capitol Building, the people’s house, where it stands for all to see, a press release said.
In both of the previous years North Carolina was represented, 1974 and 1998, the trees have been from the Pisgah National Forest, the website shows.
Christian Smith is the general assignment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times. Questions or comments? Contact him at RCSmith@gannett.com or 828-274-2222