Indigenous community keeps up fight to preserve Tree of Peace amid annex construction

The new Science and Engineering Annex construction is designed to preserve the Tree of Peace, a symbol of connection between UCCS and the Indigenous peoples on whose land the campus was built.

Thanks to negotiations and discussions, the Tree of Peace will not be moved despite the new annex being constructed on the same plot of land as the Tree, providing answers to concerns over how the university would proceed with construction.

The tree of peace is an Indigenous cultural symbol originating from the historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. In contemporary use, peace trees have been planted to solidify relationships between Native American communities and others, including in Colorado Springs at Garden of the Gods and UCCS.

Michèle Companion, a professor in the sociology department, serves as liaison between the campus community and the Native community. In advocating for the UCCS Tree of Peace, she worked with Indigenous elders and organizers affiliated with the Colorado Springs Indian Center, Lone Feather Council and other Indigenous organizations in the Pikes Peak region.

“When you dedicate a Tree of Peace, there are sacred objects that are planted with the Tree, so it binds the Tree to the land and the people in the area,” Companion said.

The dedication process also creates a curse, restricting the removal of the tree, according to Companion. However, UCCS’s original Tree of Peace was moved in 2007 to its current location to make way for a new parking garage.

After this cultural wrong, then-Chancellor Pamela Shockley-Zalabak granted permission to dedicate a new, culturally appropriate tree. UCCS worked to find sites that they promised would never be developed and settled on the space between the engineering building and the University Center.

“We were told that the Tree would never be disrupted and the area around the Tree would never be developed,” Companion said. “Chancellor Shockley-Zalabak was supposed to archive that agreement.”

According to Companion, the Native community elders were stunned when Chancellor Venkat Reddy moved forward with plans to remove the Tree, despite these previous engagements. Reddy then met with the elders to decide upon a resolution.

“We did request that the campus look for other alternatives for the annex … there was no other place that they could put the annex,” Companion said.

Companion and her associates stood their ground, saying that even if UCCS could not find another place to house the annex, they could not move the Tree.

After that, a new issue came up: working with the architects to create a new design for the annex that would allow the Tree to survive and still retain its original function and sanctity.

“The original proposal was that the Tree of Peace would be enclosed in a courtyard, and we said no,” Companion said. “If you think about buildings on campus, they have to be locked and unlocked. People don’t want to be coming to do something sacred or pray when you’ve got a big, glassed-in area and people are sitting there … [watching].”

“Chancellor Reddy and his office were very good about facilitating these meetings [with the architects],” Companion said. “The elders came and they explained the history to the architects of the Tree of Peace, why it was important to have 24-hour access to the Tree.”

The architects took suggestions from the community to create a design that would satisfy the requirements.

However, the community is still waiting with bated breath.

“Working with the architects is one thing. Having the engineers be conscientious enough to protect the Tree during construction is something entirely different,” Companion said.

Furthermore, Companion is concerned about the health of the landscape surrounding the Tree and how it will impact visitors’ experiences.

“The Tree is part of a landscape. So, the other trees, yeah, our Tree is protected, but all the other trees in this landscape are being torn out,” Companion said. “So, we’re concerned about the health of the Tree, but we’re also concerned about the health of the landscape, and how it will feel for people to go and pray there and use the Tree for the purpose that it was intended.”

This incident involving the Tree of Peace is not the only time relations between UCCS and the Native community have been strained.

“There have been slights to the Native community whether intentional or not, so the university says, ‘Look, we want to encourage Native people to come to campus, and we want Native faculty and Native students,’” Companion said. “And then we get these weird incidents of microaggression that need to be addressed.”

Companion commends Chancellor Reddy, however, for his effort to make amends.

“Props to Chancellor Reddy, because he came right out and said, ‘Look, I don’t know a lot about this, I don’t know why this is important,’” Companion said. “He set up a meeting with the elders before this even started, when this first came up as an issue … he took his personal time and he met with community elders for a very long period of time just to get a sense of why there is this tension.”

Companion notes that there is a lot of great effort being made in good faith, but because of the history, everyone is waiting to see how everything will pan out.

The annex is scheduled to open by August 2023.

The new Science and Engineering Annex is being built around the Tree of Peace. Photo by Meghan Germain.