Christmas cheer from Yakutat to Juneau

A cheery Christmas tree decorated by the hands of Alaskans young and old graces the Governor’s mansion this year as the inaugural “Good Neighbor Tree.”


The idea came from the U.S. Forest Service, which orchestrated support from the community of Yakutat and Alaska Governor Bill Walker’s office to bring “The Good Neighbor Tree” from Yakutat to Juneau.

On Nov. 22, after a brief search for the best Sitka spruce for the job, Yakutat Ranger District’s forestry technician Glenn Israelson harvested the 13-foot tall tree. He was joined on that day by the Yakutat School’s kindergarten through fourth grade classes, as well as Devlin Anderstrom, a member of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe. Cutting down the tree was an event in and of itself, begun with a blessing from Anderstrom — first in Tlingit, then in English.

According to a summary from Velvet Ivers, one of the teachers present, “he spoke of the Tlingit respect for the land and all things of the world. He spoke of the understanding that all people and objects have energy and a spirit that are all connected, the spruce tree in particular. He spoke of a few of the gifts that the tree provides to the people and animals for medicine, weaving and for building shelter. He spoke of the Tlingit science; they knew that trees create oxygen. He gave tobacco, an old Native tradition of giving thanks. He prayed and gave thanks to the land in response to removing the tree from its network of roots, to the environment for removing its use in creating oxygen and to the tree itself for giving its life so that the Governor will have a really nice Christmas tree.” The song “This Little Light of Mine” and cookies capped off the event.

Later that day, Israelson wrapped the tree so it would fit into the cargo compartment of the Alaska Airlines plane, where it made its way to Juneau.

The Yakutat School began playing a part in this project weeks before kids yelled “timber!”

Kids in Headstart through sixth grade all created ornaments for the tree, adding some Christmas cheer to the project. Yakutat’s Youth Coalition after school homework club also contributed.

“I thought it was pretty special for our school to be a part of… the first of an annual thing,” Ivers said. “We are such a small school… so the kids felt really special to be a part of something big.”

All of the teachers said their students did their best work, knowing their handiwork would be displayed in such a prominent place. Each teacher made sure to also send in either a laminated picture ornament or a Christmas ball with each student’s face and name attached.

Residents of Juneau’s Pioneer Home also made ornaments for the project.

“We wanted to include contributions from both youth and pioneers in Alaska,” said Paul Robbins Jr., public affairs officer for the Tongass National Forest. “Since the tree was coming from Yakutat, it made sense to ask if Yakutat Schools (were) interested in being a part of the project. The Pioneer Home’s contributions helped us incorporate a bit of Alaska’s history into the project. By having decorations from both Yakutat Schools and the Pioneer Home, the Good Neighbor Tree simultaneously represents the contributions the pioneers made to Alaska and the future of our state.”

The fully decorated tree has been set up at the Governor’s Mansion and was on display at the Governor’s annual open house on Dec. 5.

“We’re thrilled by the community involvement in this project and hope to continue working with the Governor’s Office to make this an annual event,” Robbins said.

• Mackenzie Fisher is a Juneau-based freelancer.


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