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Sacred tree exhibit takes shape
Artist worked with Yellowknives Dene elders

Evan Kiyoshi French
Northern News Services
Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Terry Pamplin has spent the past month building a model of the tree held sacred by the Yellowknives Dene.

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Artist Terry Pamplin applies some finishing touches to the sacred tree exhibit he's building for the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. - Evan Kiyoshi French/NNSL photo

The artist is using Sonotubes (cylinder columns), paint, and some spruce boughs to recreate Akaitcho's tree for a Prince Of Wales Northern Heritage Centre exhibit spotlighting local Dene culture.

He began assembling the elements of the tree in his workshop about two months ago before it was installed at the museum, he said.

"I love it," he said, standing before his work on Monday. "I've never made a tree before but it's not totally different (from) making sculptures.

"You just have to keep in mind what you're doing. People are going to touch it. We started off with a kind of decal material but it doesn't feel right. So we put texture under it with drywall mud."

The branches were gathered from the Ingraham Trail and they were covered with plastic Christmas-tree material to imitate needles, said Pamplin.

The actual tree - which grows today near the mouth of the Yellowknife River - is said to have once been a hiding place for the famous Yellowknives Dene chief Akaitcho (1786-1838), and is connected to Dene creation stories and the mythical giant Yamohza.

The exhibit was originally planned to be completed in June, but pleasing Dene elders has taken some time, said Pamplin.

"I proposed a tree like the ones we have down in the discovery gallery (next door to the Discovery Inn) which are just flat," he said, explaining that two flat tree images were going to be crossed to make a three-dimensional image.

"Well, they came back and said 'Well, the elders like the idea of a tree but they don't want that.'"

Back at the drawing board, Pamplin said he came up with the idea of using quartered Sonotubes to mimic the shape of the bark.

The tree he has created has a frame of two-by-two inch wooden planks held together by 6,000 drywall screws, said Pamplin.

He said the finished product will be complete with copies of the talismans and tokens people have been leaving at the real tree for generations.

"Akaitcho's tree has been the site of veneration for a long time," he said.

"People leave offerings. So there's loonies stuck in the cracks of the bark and last time I was out there, there was a rosary hanging.

"My team has been working with elders for the last year-and-a-half getting their stories and input."

About twelve panels - featuring photographs and artifacts donated from community members and from the museums archives - will be set up around the final exhibit, he said.

When the tree was initially created, said Pamplin, elders weren't happy with it's girth.

"When we first finished, it was about 19 inches bigger ... they said 'well, it just seems a bit big'."

Pamplin said working with the elders was fun, although difficult since many don't speak English.

"They're just like my

grandparents," he said.

The last time elders came to view his work, the tree wasn't decorated with branches and foliage, he said.

"It's going to be fun to see what they think when they come in the fall," he said.

Janna Graham, exhibit planner for the museum, said although the exhibit's new opening date of Oct. 3 is several months behind the initial date, the project is actually making good time.

"Collaborative exhibits between indigenous communities and museums, some of them take 10 years," she said. "You're starting from scratch. I'm feeling pretty good that we're getting this up in two years."

She said she remembers the first time she saw the sacred tree as it stands beside the river, two years ago when museum staff held their first meetings with the Yellowknives Dene.

"We actually met at the Yellowknife River and they took us to the tree. From there we realized how significant the Yellowknife River and that tree is. From there, we were inspired to focus the exhibit at the river and the tree."

Randy Freeman, the traditional specialist for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation who has been working on the sacred tree project for many months, said he isn't sure what kind of tree it is.

"I'm not a tree specialist or anything, but it looks a lot like a lodgepole pine.

"But it's much bigger than a lodgepole pine usually is. I'm not sure any of the elders even have a word for what kind of tree it is."

He said attempts to identify the tree could mean harming it.

"We aren't going to start tearing the bark off of it to find out what it is," he said. Graham said she was surprised to learn about the story of the tree.

"I've been here for five years ... some of my colleagues have been here most of their adult lives.

"The tree and the meaning and history of it were new to us. So it kind of opened my eyes. The next step is to show the whole community."

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