LINCOLN CITY — A giant Sitka Spruce tree at Regatta Park was christened last week with a name that will likely bedevil hikers as it did the mayor.
“I just hope we don’t offend anybody by mispronouncing it,” worried Don Williams after the unanimous vote to call the ancient tree “Nuu-k’wii-daa-naa’-ye,” a tongue-twister that translates to “Our Ancestor” in the Athabaskan language of the Siletz Tribe.
Williams worried that a “bizarre translation” by Google Earth or other site-finding apps might rub speakers of the early language the wrong way. But a member of the Siletz-based Indian nation said syllabic contortions wouldn’t insult anyone.
“No other language is close to ours,” explained Tim Stuart, an enrolled member of the tribe who joined Parks Director Jeanne Sprague at the Aug. 13 council meeting to support the landmark naming.
It is the first time a park or park feature has been named since the council recently adopted a policy to honor significant historical events, major donors or important public figures who have been dead at least three years.
The tree came to regional attention earlier this year during an Arbor Day celebration where tree supporters gathered to show their affection for the tall spruce, whose gnarled bark and crooked roots form a base 33 feet in diameter. Parks officials estimate the tree’s age at 400 years, and suspect it may be the largest of its species in Oregon. It’s actual height, Sprague commented, “is anybody’s guess.”
City Councilor Riley Hoagland, who is of Native descent, was the driving force behind the naming of the tree, according to Sprague. In his proposal to the parks board, Hoagland stated the name would show “respect to the Siletz tribe,” a major economic force in Lincoln City with a casino, golf course and other properties that make it the town’s largest employer.
Stuart did most of the talking, however, pronouncing the name several times to nodding councilors.
“We wanted to suggest a word that would bring everyone together — the city, the community, the tribe — rather than naming it after somebody’s grandpa or so-and-so,” he stated.
It was Stuart’s idea to spell the word phonetically on a plaque at the tree’s base, saying the actual language would appear as “hieroglyphics” to ordinary readers.
“I absolutely love this amazing idea,” beamed Councilor Diana Hinton. “I’m overjoyed to vote for this.”
An effort by tribal elders to recapture their native jargon triggered the Siletz Tribal Language Project in the early 1980s. The effort has produced a curriculum for third through eighth grades and a website to help others study the dialect at siletzlanguage.org.
According to Bud Lane, a tribal language specialist, a “keyboard-friendly” alphabet was first developed for Athabaskan in 1994.
Sitka Spruce are known to grow to heights of over 330 feet. The forest giants once dominated the Oregon coast but were largely lost to shingle mills and aircraft production during WWI.