Shoe Tree memorial

Adam Fortunate Eagle and Nila Northsun burn sage to bless the fallen Shoe Tree.

Adam Fortunate Eagle and Nila Northsun burn sage to bless the fallen Shoe Tree.

Photo By d. brian burghart

The “Tree of Life” is an almost universal symbol. It’s pretty easy to understand on a symbolic level: Trees are often very long lived, and some go through the annual cycles of losing their leaves and producing fruit and nuts, which feed people with little effort. It’s not a forgotten archetype. Even our technological culture pays abeyance to the idea with books like The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, a lesson in co-dependence.

So it was with full belief in the appropriateness of my action that I drove down to Middlegate for the Shoe Tree memorial. The Shoe Tree, which is still lying in the ravine where it fell when some asshole cut it down on or about New Year’s Eve, is still covered with shoes. While I think the ceremony gave some “closure” to some of the participants, I found myself feeling incredibly guilty—and hypocritical—for having driven there. Fifteen gallons of gas to drive myself and my friend Matt Becker an hour past Fallon seemed to spit in the eyes of the very Earth spirits we were there to honor. On the other hand, it was a beautiful day for a drive and a four-hour conversation.

The memorial was organized by Fredda Stevenson, owner of the Middlegate Bar and Restaurant, and her family. But lots of people turned out. I was frankly surprised. I didn’t take head count, but there were probably 200 people there. There were young and old people, hippies, burners, bikers and hikers. A couple of aging spiritualists kept some bowl gongs singing, as various media members went around, got in people’s faces, and generally made themselves useful as documentarians.

Adam Fortunate Eagle, Fallon artist and Native American activist, along with his family, did the more formal “ceremony,” although people with remembrances also participated after the blessing. Fortunate Eagle was assisted by his daughter, poet Nila Northsun, and other family members.

The ceremony began with Fortunate Eagle blowing a long thin tone through what I think was an eagle’s bone to the six directions—north, south, east, west, up and down. He and Northsun then lit sage smudges, and used the smudges to bless the fallen tree and the crowd. He then addressed the crowd in a native language, before explaining in English that he was basically saying who he was and where he came from, which is a traditional Native American form for storytelling.

He said 1954 was the first time he drove past the tree, but there had been many times since then. He indicated the hills nearby, saying many people use the hills for many things—gathering pine nuts, hunting deer. “We’d get our Christmas trees there,” he said. “We also kill a tree for Jesus.”

He pointed out that humor has an important place in all aspects of the Native American life: “Joy, love and laughter has a very important place in it,” he said. “Trees are important to our traditional people.” He mentioned that trees are placed outside of sweat lodges and in the places of the sun dances. He also said his wife’s shoes were added to the tree some 10 years ago. “It is sad to look at the ravine to our fallen brother. Today, we’re going to make an offering to the spirit of our friend.”

While the ceremony was touching, there was a moment of consternation when some idiot disrespectfully allowed his dog to run free, and it disrupted the proceedings—keeping the “nonemotional creatures” away being the one request Fortunate Eagle made.

After that part of the ceremony concluded, people were allowed to take pinches of tobacco into the ravine to place on the tree’s stump.

The meanness of people—to kill a tree just because it gave happiness to others, or to allow their dog to run free because they were thoughtless enough not to respect other spiritualities, or to drive 216 miles to give homage to a tree that they have no personal attachment to—sometimes I just can’t wrap my head around it.