Capitol tree's journey thrills Tuolumne County residents

Mewuk members among its escorts; lights go on today

mdoyle@mcclatchydc.comDecember 5, 2011 

— Mewuk tribal leader Reba Fuller now has a cross-country saga for the ages.

And that's before today's lighting of the Capitol Christmas Tree, cut from a forest not far from Fuller's Tuolumne County home.

Joined by her 16-year-old grandson, Summerville High School sophomore Sheldon Bradford, Fuller helped escort the 63-foot-tall white fir from the Stanislaus National Forest to the foot of the U.S. Capitol. The trip took some three weeks and taught them a lot, about the country and about each other.

"We may never again in our lifetime have an opportunity to travel in an adventure like this," Fuller said Monday, "and that's what it was, an adventure."

Go ahead. Ask them about the Indian center of Gallup, N.M., where the Mewuk Indians delivered donated food. Or Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where an Army band serenaded them. Or Amarillo, Texas, with its culinary hospitality.

"Big steaks," said Sheldon, who measures his words.

But Sheldon and his grandmother Fuller, who serves as government affairs specialist for the Tuolumne Band of Mewuk Indians, are not the only ones caught up in the grand Capitol Christmas Tree adventure.

Johnny Crawford is certainly one. The 7-year-old, home-schooled Sonora resident won a drawing to join House Speaker John Boehner today in flipping on the tree's 10,000 LED lights. Some technical specifications were not yet forthcoming.

"He hasn't had any special training to do it," said Johnny's mother, Lisa Crawford.

The Summerville High School Jazz @ 8 Advanced Jazz Choir, by contrast, has been practicing diligently for its role. In addition to performing tonight at the Capitol, the choir managed, through the efforts of Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, to land a gig at the White House singing for tourists this morning.

The 18-member group raised money to pay for the trip, said Dave Urquhart, principal at the Tuolumne County school.

Likewise preparing hard has been chef Gene Womble, hospitality management program coordinator at Columbia College, who along with a crew will be preparing a gourmet meal for a U.S. Forest Service reception this afternoon.

For everyone, the logistics have been daunting.

One truck hauled the 8,300-pound white fir, personally selected by the Capitol grounds superintendent from among other arboreal candidates on the Stanislaus forest's Summit District. A custom-made cradle preserved its shape; a water-filled bladder was fit around its base to preserve its green.

Another semi hauled a 19-foot white fir cut from the forest's Groveland District, bound for the National Museum of the American Indian. About 100 modest-sized trees cut from California's Mountain Home State Forest shared space on this second semi, bound for federal offices throughout Washington.

Two sport utility vehicles hauled the Mewuk representatives and four Stanislaus forest personnel. Two law enforcement rangers, traveling in two SUVs, kept the Capitol-bound tree in their sight the entire way.

"It was locked up every night," Capitol Christmas Tree Coordinator Maria Benech said.

Safely delivered, the Stanislaus National Forest trees were scattered to their respective holiday homes. The 19-foot white pine was adorned and placed outside the American Indian museum.

"You can't bring it inside, because it's been in a forest, and it might have bugs or diseases," said Jane E. Sledge, the museum's associate director, "and so it has to sit outside in the cold."

The man who cut down the 19-foot tree with his chainsaw, Robert Millis, was reunited with it Monday when he and other Mewuk tribal members arrived at the museum for a reception. Millis, 29, who most know as Buddy, directed four male and eight female Mewuk dancers in a performance in the heart of the museum.

The setting was an unusual one for the dancers — "We're used to dirt," one man confided — but they rose to the occasion as they swayed, twirled and chanted. The men were bare-chested, some bearing tattoos. The women wore long dresses. Everyone wore feathers; no one wore shoes. In lieu of applause, they punctuated each dance with a sharp "Oh!"

They seemed, momentarily, timeless.

"I talked to other people from California," Millis explained, "and they said, 'Make the ground shake.' "

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