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The Native American Studies Program at West Virginia University welcomes the public to its 26th anniversary of the Peace Tree Ceremony on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 11:30 a.m. at the Peace Tree, located between Martin and Elizabeth Moore halls. The Mountainlair ballrooms will serve as a rain location for the ceremony.

Sarah Kastelic headshot
Sarah Kastelic

The Peace Tree tradition comes from Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian) history. Told in the traditional manner by a tribal elder, the full story can take four days to tell.

According to Haudenosaunee oral tradition, the creator sent the Peacemaker to unite the warring Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk nations by planting the original Tree of Peace at Onondaga nearly 1,000 years ago. The white pine came to symbolize the formation of the original Haudenosaunee Five Nations Confederacy (now Six Nations, with the addition of the Tuscarora).

“Every year, when we have the WVU Peace Tree ceremony, we can reflect on the lessons of the Peacemaker, acknowledging the importance of coming together and agreeing not to fight each other,” said Bonnie Brown, coordinator of the Native American Studies Program. “The Iroquoian nations demonstrated that it’s possible to peacefully coexist and that we are stronger together than when we are divided.”

At the ceremony, there will be music and a symbolic burying of the weapons of war. A golden eagle from the Deep Creek (Maryland) State Park Discovery Center will represent the eagle the Peacemaker placed as a sentry at the top of the original tree. In addition, all those in attendance will be invited to add a prayer tie, with any good intention they choose, on the tree.

“It is one day to focus as a community on what we can all do to strive for peace and to be peaceful people,” Brown said.

This year’s guest of honor is Sarah Kastelic, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, an organization that seeks to protect Native American children and preserve families. She is Alutiiq and a member of the Alaska Native Village of Ouzinkie, a subsistence community in northeastern Kodiak Island whose presence dates back at least 9,000 years.

Kastelic has led the National Congress of American Indians welfare reform program and was the founding director of NCAI’s Policy Research Center. She is a national award-winning leader who has been called “a transformational leader working to further research policy that empowers American Indian and Alaska Native communities.”

Kastelic’s evening presentation, “Protecting Children, Preserving Families: Lessons from the Indian Child Welfare Act,” will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. in the Mountainlair ballroom. A welcome reception will be held at 6:30 p.m. and will include a display of books by Native American authors.

By the 1970s, it was estimated that 25 to 35 percent of all Native American children were being removed from their homes, with 85 percent of those children being placed in non-Native families or institutions.

According to Brown, given this disproportionate rate of displacement, it’s easy to conclude that the children were being removed from their families and tribes with the goal of assimilating Native people into the dominant culture.

Brown added, “These children were being denied access to their culture, languages, customs, spiritual practices, and sense of tribal community. In response, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978.”

Kastelic heads the National Indian Child Welfare Association, an organization that seeks to protect Native American children and preserve families.

“Despite the many protections ICWA law provides, and the fact that it is considered the ‘gold standard of child welfare policy’ by the national child advocacy organizations across the country, NICWA continues to advocate for full compliance with this groundbreaking legislation and defend it against attacks from those wishing to overturn it,” Kastelic said.

This year’s ceremony marks the 26th anniversary of the planting of WVU’s first peace tree by Chief Leon Shenandoah, Tadodaho of the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy and Chippewa Chief Robert TallTree.

The peace tree events are free and open to the public. They are made possible by the Carolyn Reyer Fund for Native American Studies, School of Social Work, Department of PsychologyDepartment of Political Science, the College of Education and Human Resources Child Development and Family Studies Program and Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

The School of Social Work will award one continuing education credit hour to social workers who attend Kastelic’s public lecture.