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Peace Tree Ceremony honors COVID-19 losses in West Virginia

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Native American Studies peace tree ceremony was a small, private event involving just six people. They met at the peace tree outside Martin Hall on Saturday, Nov. 7, during Native American Heritage Month. The gathering marked the 28th anniversary of the WVU peace tree, planted by Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian) leaders and commemorated annually by the University community with Native American keynote speakers from tribes throughout the U.S.

2020 Peace Tree Ceremony

A ccording to Native American Studies Program Coordinator Bonnie Brown, this year’s peace tree gathering was dedicated to honoring those who are suffering from or have died due to COVID-19. Ellesa Clay High, Department of English professor emerita and former Native American Studies program coordinator, organized the event. High led a group effort with her Preston County neighbors and friends to create a garland of nearly 500 tobacco ties in honor of those who had died in West Virginia as a result of COVID-19, reflecting the loss of life as of early November. State authorities now report the death toll at nearly 800.

The small, handmade ties contained a small bit of tobacco bundled in red fabric and tied with ribbon—many Native Americans regard tobacco as a sacred component of prayer and ritual. High also made a larger gold and blue tobacco bundle in tribute to individuals at WVU who are struggling due to the pandemic.

“As I put the memorial garland together, each tie touching another, I thought, ‘the spiritual does not have to social distance,’” High said. “It was such an honor, and it was very moving to create it.”

The nearly 1,000-year-old peace tree tradition began when the peacemaker united the warring Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk and Onondaga Nations by planting the original Tree of Peace at Onondaga, forming the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, later joined by the Tuscarora.  

Original plans called for Merv Tano, president of the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management, to serve as the 2020 Peace Tree Ceremony guest of honor. His visit is moved to fall 2021. Likewise, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek) was slated to serve as the NAS Program guest of honor in March 2021 but is now scheduled for April 4-6, 2022.

In addition to High and Brown, the Peace Tree commemoration included Daniel McNeil, Eberly Distinguished Professor of Public Service and professor of  psychology and member of the NAS Program Committee, NAS alumni Billy Williams and Mary Marra, and Mary’s daughter Sara.

The 2019 Peace Tree Ceremony includes a history of the Peace Tree and formation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, presented by Jacobs, along with opening remarks by WVU administrators, gift-giving and songs.