Redwood at Chico State symbolizes unity for all
Twenty-five years ago, representatives from more than a dozen Native American tribes gathered in front of Trinity Hall on the Chico State campus and planted a tree. That tree symbolized peace, both among tribes and in the community.
“There was a two-year span when the climate was not that great—there were very unhealthy community rivalries,” said Charles “C.C.” Carter, program director of the university’s Cross-Cultural Leadership Center. A graduate of Chico State, Carter has worked on campus since 1980.
“The culminating experience happened at a pow wow that the university hosted at the rugby field,” Carter recalled. “The baseball team was playing, and they were co-using the locker room. A couple of the native kids were in the locker room and were harassed by some of the Chico State baseball players.”
That event, as Carter said, was the last straw. Several other racially motivated incidents—not all including Native Americans—over the previous few years were enough for the U.S. Office for Civil Rights to take notice and launch an investigation. As a result, the campus held two conferences on racism.
“We were trying to create dialogue about what was happening,” Carter said.
Doyle Lowry was a student at the time of the pow wow incident, and a member of the American Indian Club. He said the atmosphere was murky because the Native Americans on campus were fighting the archaeology department for repatriation of remains. It was a difficult time, and when the dancers were harassed, he said, “We felt like the administration didn’t really take our side. A lot of Indian students felt they really weren’t valued, like we weren’t taken seriously in our issues.”
At the same time, he and other members of the club wanted to move forward. They’d heard about the Tree of Peace Society started by members of the Mohawk Nation, whose mission was to bring unity and peace to the world through planting trees. They decided to give society founder Jake Swamp a call and see if he’d come to Chico. He did.
“A lot of healing needed to happen,” Lowry said by phone from his home in Maryland. “We said, ‘Let’s rise above being reactionary and try to start a different dialogue.’ That’s where the Tree of Peace came in.”
About 75 people gathered on Nov. 26, 1988, to celebrate the planting and the symbolic burying of the hatchet. Many will return for its 25th birthday, including Lowry and the late Swamp’s daughter. The ceremony is sponsored by Chico State and the Mechoopda Maidu tribe, whose ancestral land lies beneath much of the campus.
“The reason it’s so meaningful is that it reminds us how important it is to become one, to be a unified people, and regardless of who we are, that we understand that hate is no longer appreciated,” said Mechoopda Tribal Chairman Dennis Ramirez.
A couple of years after the tree was planted, on a Sunday morning, Lowry and others on campus noticed it had been broken nearly in half.
“A Chico State student, coming home drunk, decided to climb it—and he broke it in half,” Lawry recalled. “We don’t know who actually did it, but I didn’t feel like the kid did it on purpose.”
An arborist was brought out to check the tree’s health and it wasn’t clear if it would survive. So a second redwood was planted, just across the pathway. That one isn’t marked, but it’s a tree of peace nonetheless. Both stand tall today.
“We’re in a much healthier place now,” Carter said. “But there are always going to be pockets of people who are uncomfortable with the whole idea of diversity.”