The 2023 West Virginian of the Year toured the state to kick off holiday celebrations with thousands of admiring fans.
As each year comes to a close, our thoughts turn to choosing our West Virginian of the Year. We ask ourselves, who has touched our state in a positive way? This year, we went out on a limb and chose the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. This tree, known as The People’s Tree, was harvested from our Monongahela National Forest and spent almost two weeks traveling the state from one small town to another. Events commemorating the tree sprouted up all over the state, celebrating our heritage and connecting us to our roots. The excitement and joy were contagious as thousands came together, united in their pride of place. It quickly became evident that this was more than just a tree—it was a symbol of the enduring spirit of our people and the resilience of our state.
The People’s Tree is evergreen and, as such, represents life in the midst of winter, reminding us that even in the darkest times, there is hope for a brighter future. As this tree stands guard in front of our nation’s capitol, our hope is that it continues to inspire us to carry our love of place and our spirit of community with us throughout the years to come, spreading love, joy, peace, and goodwill to all we encounter.
Q Tell us about where you grew up.
A I was planted in Laurel Fork Campground near Glady in Randolph County. It’s a wonderful place full of nature and fun, and it has some of the best fishing in the state. And it’s in Monongahela National Forest!
Q Not to be needling, but when did you put down roots in West Virginia?
A I’m about 36 to 38 years old, according to my tree rings. I was probably planted in the campground after the terrible flood of November 1985. But I was such a small seedling, I don’t really remember when I was planted.
Q What’s the story behind your name, wa’feem’tekwi?
A My caretakers at the Forest Service invited the Shawnee Tribe to name me as part of the ongoing celebration of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree initiative and to honor that unique nation-to-nation relationship. I love my name—wa’feem’tekwi. It can be pronounced phonetically “wa thame tech we” and translates to “bright tree” in the Shawnee language. And when I am lit up for the holidays in D.C., I will be very bright!
Q What was your first thought when you realized you had been selected as the National Christmas Tree?
A I was very honored to be chosen to represent West Virginia and Monongahela National Forest. My first thought was, “Why me?” At just 63 feet tall, I’m a bit shorter than the trees that are usually selected. U.S. Capitol Christmas Trees have to be perfectly cone-shaped with very full branches. So, I’m quite flattered that I was chosen for my perfect figure.
Q This has been a huge undertaking. Can you talk a bit about that?
A The Forest Service staff have been planning this project for more than a year! They have worked closely with all sorts of community groups, schools, state agencies, and local governments. They are so grateful to their primary partner, Choose Outdoors, and all of the project sponsors, including presenting sponsor 84 Lumber. These folks really put their heart and soul into this project, and it is their efforts that have made this all so successful.
Q How does it feel to have your every move tracked?
A I’ve spent my entire life in public service at Laurel Fork Campground in Monongahela National Forest, so I’m fine with all the attention. You can see a full list of towns I visited at capitoltreetracker.com. No one has ever asked me for an interview before, though. Thank you for this honor!
Q Do you get carsick on our country roads?
A I’m in an odd position, lying flat on my back under a tarp while traveling through West Virginia. My stomach is literally in knots sometimes! But my top half is decorated with ornaments and lights, and I enjoy seeing all the children and families together, having fun. I started my tour in Elkins with a joyful kickoff celebration, and that is something I will always remember. Everyone at all the stops has been so welcoming. Thank you to all the people who planned these events and came out to sing to me and take a photo with me.
Q When you think about the holidays, is it hard not to get too sappy?
A It will be fun to see all the people celebrating Christmas at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. I’ll miss Monongahela National Forest and all my friends there, of course. But I’m really looking forward to my new home with the Shawnee Tribe in Oklahoma when this is all over.
Q How are you sprucing up the capitol grounds?
A Once I arrived in D.C. on November 17, the staff of the Architect of the Capitol began taking care of me. They secured me safely into the ground and decorated me with lights and ornaments, and the Office of the Speaker of the House planned a tree lighting ceremony on November 28. Here, I truly became wa’feem’tekwi—bright tree.
About 14,000 ornaments were made not just for me, but for all the Christmas trees that will be used in federal offices on Capitol Hill and at Forest Service, USDA, and Department of the Interior offices in D.C.
Q After working with the government, what branch of government is your favorite?
A My first love will always be the employees of Monongahela National Forest and the people of endlessly wild and wonderful West Virginia. Thank you for planting me all those years ago! Remember, it’s always a good day to plant a tree—we are a “tree-mendous” renewable resource.