Land Transfer Brings Closure to Salish Sea Tribe 20 Years After Village Site and Cemetery Disturbed

Land Transfer Brings Closure to Lummi Tribe 20 Years After Ancestors’ Remains Disturbed

By Lynda V. Mapes | June 30, 2017

First there was a human cranium, then a large leg bone, and teeth; then Al Scott Johnnie knew he was looking at the remains of his ancestors, disturbed in the construction of a sewage treatment plant.

The violation of a Lummi village site and burial ground at Semiahmoo Spit nearly 20 years ago was remembered this week, in a ceremonial procession. Once there, Harry Robinson, mayor of Blaine, signed over the deed to the nearly 2-acre site to Tim Ballew II, chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council, on behalf of the Lummi Nation.

“It is good to see this finally happening, that we were able to bring some closure,” said Ballew, who signed the transfer seated at a folding table next to Robinson, set just in front of where the ancestors were reburied.

Wrapped in hand-woven Coast Salish blankets presented for the occasion, the two passed the papers between them, sealing a small but redemptive act. Tribal members in black-feathered headdresses and ceremonial dress stood behind them as they signed, singing, drumming and shaking deer-hoof rattles. A pair of eagles repeatedly flew over the property.

After the signing, Robinson told the crowd, assembled facing the burial site, “We know this is sacred ground. We look forward to continuing the relationship we established in this process and continuing to work with you in the future.”

The singers had led about 100 people to the site to witness the signing, including tribal elders and cultural leaders and many who worked at the site, sifting through the material disturbed in construction, to find the bones and belongings of their ancestors.

An attorney for the tribe ultimately had to fly to Colorado to track down human remains carted off the site in vegetable boxes by the archaeologist supervising the job. Some 450 dump-truck loads of cultural material from the site full of human remains and artifacts also had been dumped in stockpiles and even sold as fill.

“We literally drove around the county, looking for fresh piles of shell midden in people’s yards,” said Alyson Rollins, today a physical anthropologist for the tribe. Shell middens are layers of cooking remains, particularly bones, shell and grease, deposited through years of human use of a site.

Lummi Cultural Department Director Al Scott Johnnie said he remembers going to the site on a routine visit to check in on the ongoing construction in August 1999 and learning that the remains of some 44 of his ancestors had been trucked away to Colorado.

State and federal officials at that time shut down any further work at the site, citing egregious violations of the protocol to protect cultural materials.

An archaeologist who carted the remains in his truck to his home was put on leave, then resigned.

Ultimately indigenous use of the area was revealed to date back at least 4,500 years.

Archaeologists found more than 350,000 animal and fish remains at the village site, and tens of thousands of artifacts, including more than 19,000 items at least a century old, or much, much older.

The material dug from the site was replete with bone, stone and antler tools. There were spear points, arrow heads, fishing weights, bone awls and adzes. Spindle whorls documented a high culture including weaving arts, fine carving and body ornamentation, including labrets.

In all more than 35,300 ancestral human remains were found. The tribe reburied their ancestors in five separate ceremonies as remains were recovered, concluding in 2013. …

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