Is time running out for sacred oak on UW-Eau Claire campus?

By: Mary Rinzel Email
By: Mary Rinzel Email

The controversy surrounding a sacred tree continues at UW-Eau Claire.

Tuesday, the city council could approve a site plan for a $48.8 million student center. Monday, more than 50 people gathered for a brainstorming session on campus. There was talk of a petition that's circulating, a resolution that's on its way to the student senate and passionate pleas to save the Council Oak.

It’s a tree deep in history; now at the heart of a $49 million debate.

"I know not everyone is going to be happy with one solution," said Student Body President Michael Umhoefer.

Monday, no solution was found. But, for the people speaking up the message was clear: Save the Council Oak.

"This seems like a really good opportunity for the university to recognize we have a hole in our heritage here," said Hickory Tate, a UW-EC sophomore.

Many like Tate were surprised how few people even knew about the tree. It's on the school's seal, but no one knew it existed or the history behind it.

“You can't move a sacred site. You can't pretend somewhere else is a sacred site. You can't take another tree and perform some kind of ceremony and transfer the spiritual aspects to that tree. You can't," said Dr. Wendy Makoons Geniusz, director of American Indian Studies at UW-Eau Claire.

Makoons Geniusz said options like uprooting the tree are a slap in the face to Native Americans. She, along with about dozen others, said the only option is to rethink the plans. But, that's something the chair of the Davies Center Steering Committee says could be extremely costly to do.

“There is an economic reality in all of this. As much as we think the values are most important, we also have a stewardess to our student body that is paying for the building to listen to them as well," said Dr. Beth Hellwig.

But, is time running out for the Council Oak? The university wants the discussions to continue, but the Board of Regents is set to consider the plans in mid October.

Hellwig says in the coming weeks, the university will be checking to make sure the ground around the tree isn't an ancient burial site. She says students started paying fees toward the new student center seven years ago. Right now, they're around $160 a year.

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