Plans for new UCCS Engineering Building may conflict with promises to Tree of Peace

Caitlyn Dieckmann 

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 UCCS’ promise to protect the space occupied by the Tree of Peace on campus has come under jeopardy as the administration deliberates where to place the new Engineering Building Annex.  

     While decisions have not been finalized, the university is considering construction in the area occupied by the tree. According to Chancellor Venkat Reddy, “We are looking at designing the Engineering Building Annex around the Tree of Peace as one option. Our Planning and Construction team are looking at additional sites as possible locations for the Annex. A final location will be chosen after all options have been explored.”  

Approximate location of the tree of peace.
It is in between the engineering building and the university center.

     However, former Chancellor Emerita Pam Shockley-Zalabak made an agreement as part of the 2013 relocation of the Tree of Peace that the space on the hill occupied by the tree and the nearby Engineering & Applied Science Building would remain undeveloped, according to Michèle Companion, sociology department chair. 

     The Tree of Peace is a Douglas fir tree that symbolizes and solidifies the relationship between the Native American community and the entire campus community, representing a link to cultural continuity and peaceful, supportive, ongoing relationships, according to a project description from 2013. The tree is a place [location] where students and the community can reflect on their daily lives, enjoy its beauty and shade and hold ceremonies.  

     The Tree of Peace was planted in 1988, but the original tree died, and a new Tree of Peace was recognized in its place in the early 2000s, according to a Scribe article from 2013. 

     This tree was originally located outside of Centennial Hall but was re-established in a new location on a slope near the Engineering & Applied Science Building in 2013 to protect it from the busy and polluted space where its quality of life was suffering.  

     On April 10, Reddy met with Native community members, including Eugene Red Hawk, Mohawk elder and spiritual caretaker for the tree. Red Hawk conducted the rededication ceremony during the Tree of Peace relocation in October 2013. 

     “In deeply listening to the former Chancellor, Native/Indigenous community Elders and campus faculty, staff and students, I began to understand more richly the importance of the Tree of Peace on the UCCS campus,” Reddy said regarding the meeting and in response to concerns over early plans to move the current Tree of Peace for construction of the new Engineering Building Annex.  

     The university originally considered the option of moving the Tree of Peace, which sparked protest among the UCCS and Native communities. This option has since been dismissed. 

     Companion was the faculty advisor for the Native American Student Association in 2013 when the Green Action Fund provided a $400 grant to support the new Tree of Peace.  

     Companion spoke on the university’s ongoing decision regarding the new Engineering Building Annex and the tree. “First of all, I want to be clear that we’re very grateful that Chancellor Reddy was willing to meet with the elders who were involved in the original tree plantings, and we’re grateful that he’s not going to move the tree,” Companion said.  

     However, Companion explained that under the original agreement with Shockley-Zalabak, the slope where the Tree of Peace is planted would not be developed.  

    “So that’s why we agreed to plant the tree,” Companion said. “The Tree of Peace is going to get quite big so we’re grateful that Chancellor Reddy is not going to move the Tree of Peace, but we are concerned.” 

     According to Companion, there is the possibility that Reddy will approve construction for the new building in the area, thus breaching the agreement made as part of the rededication of the Tree of Peace in 2013. “In the meeting with the elders, [Reddy] said that he was looking for other sites for the expansion of the engineering building, but more and more things that I hear seem to indicate that they’re going to go ahead with [construction around the tree],” she said. 

     Companion explained that she sent an email to Reddy, which had not received a response at the time of interview. The email expressed the need for a formal acknowledgement that the university’s original promise to the Tree of Peace was to not disturb the slope and confirmation on whether Reddy plans to develop the area.  

     “The only thing we have confirmed from the chancellor is that he won’t move the tree so the community is very concerned about what the quality of life for the tree is going to be if they build around it. They’re concerned about access to the tree, and they’re concerned about the safety of the tree if building occurs,” Companion said.  

     These concerns are reminiscent of those that led to the relocation of the Tree of Peace in 2013. 

     According to the 2013 Green Action Fund Tree of Peace Grant statement, the project aimed to “plant a Douglas Fir on campus on behalf of the members of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Mohawk Nation, the local Native American community, and members of faculty and students.” 

     The statement also explained that the original tree was not culturally appropriate as it was a honey locust, which is not the traditional fir that represents a tree of peace. Additionally, the new tree was necessary because the previous tree was “located in a poor area environmentally and spiritually.” 

     At the previous location, the tree and visitors to the tree were exposed to the noise of the shuttles, which disrupted ceremonies, and the exhaust from vehicles was damaging. Red Hawk believed the tree was dying spiritually and wished to “decommission” the previous tree to plant a spiritually clean one, according to the statement.  

     Most importantly, the tree’s relocation in 2013 served as a correction to the “cultural wrong that was done when the original tree died after having been moved to build the parking garage.” 

     Other concerns were also raised as a result of the ongoing deliberation, pertaining to the hypocrisy around the development of the slope and the recent 150 Tree Challenge.  

     The 150 Tree Challenge was accepted by UCCS as part of Colorado Springs’ Sesquicentennial celebrations, in partnership with the Office of Sustainability, and led to the planting of 150 trees on campus. 

     However, construction in the area of the Tree of Peace would require the removal of trees. 

     “There are other huge wonderful well-established trees that are very healthy, like I said together, they form a landscape that makes that a nice space. And if all of those trees are ripped down so that the Tree of Peace can be encased in a courtyard, it’s problematic,” Companion said.  

     When the current slope was chosen for the new placement of the Tree of Peace, Companion said, “We worked with campus architect Carolyn Fox, and we worked with the head of groundskeeping at the time who was Keith Woodring, and we identified all the potential sites on campus, that might never be developed, and we were assured, time and time, again and again [by] Chancellor Shockley-Zalabak…that this space was set aside and would never be developed.” 

     Assistant Professor of Indigenous/Native American Studies in the UCCS Women’s and Ethnic Studies (WEST) program Ilaheva Tua’one also expressed her thoughts on the university considering development around the Tree of Peace.  

     “I think that the situation was not ideal, and that the ideal situation would be to [not] disturb that land there at all, but coming to a compromise, and the administration’s willingness to listen to faculty concerns, student concerns and the community’s concerns, their willingness, really shows the commitment that UCCS itself has to indigenous needs,” Tua’one said.  

     “I think that more people need to know [about the tree and the university’s plans], that this needs to be public knowledge. It almost happened without us all knowing. The students need to know about [the tree], and people need to visit it and honor it,” she said. 

     Tua’one also said that monuments should represent our hopes and what makes us happy. The tree, according to Tua’one, is not only a monument to the past, our ancestors and the earth, but also a modern monument for our future which also represents sustainability.  

     Tua’one said that this is why the tree is important. “We don’t need more statues of things that don’t represent us.” 

     Plans for the expansion of the Engineering Building began in Fall 2020 with UCCS receiving $3.5 million from the Anschutz Foundation, according to Reddy. $8 million was also committed by the CU Foundation, all together covering only 70% of the costs for the proposed project.  

     “The expansion will feature a three-story, 26,000-square-foot annex to the UCCS Engineering Building and carry the Anschutz name,” Reddy said.  

     Although the dimensions of the new building have been decided, Reddy said, “At this point in time we have not engaged an architectural firm to begin design of the new facility, so we do not have any preliminary designs to share.”  

     Reddy added, “Dean Rabern and the faculty and staff of the College of Engineering and Applied Science will be closely involved in the design of the building to ensure it meets the educational mission of the college.” 

     Reddy also explained the need for the new building: “UCCS was founded in 1965 on an early need to educate engineers of the future and meet expanding workforce needs. The expansion is essential to address the expanding engineering workforce needs in our community as well as provide additional academic choices for our students. We seek to redouble our efforts to develop the bright minds of future engineering students. 

     “The UCCS Planning, Design and Construction office will oversee the construction of this project,” Reddy said.  

     Companion encouraged student activism for the Tree of Peace, saying, “You guys are strong, the students here have a lot of voice, and I would love it if you guys would use your voice to really support leaving that slope alone and honoring the original promise. I would really love you to emphasize that we’re grateful to Chancellor Reddy, that he’s not going to move the tree, but that’s still not the original promise.”  

     For members of the community planning to visit the tree, Companion also asked for them to spend time respectfully with the tree. However, if students plan to leave an offering, keep in mind the tree is still growing and anything left for/on the tree needs to be able to allow for growth. Also, no one should touch or remove anything that is on the tree.  

     Companion also provided a brief description of the imagery of a traditional tree of peace, which is a fir tree with a medicine club, or one such sacred item, buried beneath the tree to represent burying of weapons of war in order to create a neutral territory. An eagle on top of the tree symbolizes seeing into the future on all sides of an issue.  

     “It comes out of a connection between the original tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy. Again, we call it hot nashoni. The original trees of peace were Eastern White Pine, because of the number of needles, and each needle represented one of the original five nations and the Confederacy,” Companion said.  

     Construction for the new Engineering Building Annex is set to begin in March 2022 with plans to finish the building in Fall 2023. 

The peace tree on campus. Photo by Zach Robbins.