Semiahmoo remains return to resting place

Published on Thu, Dec 13, 2001 by Jack Kintner

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Semiahmoo remains return to resting place

By Jack Kintner

Lummi tribal members, assisted by friends and relatives from other Coast Salish tribes from Puget Sound and B.C., began re-burying the remains of their ancestors last Monday morning in ceremonies conducted near the foot of Semiahmoo Spit. The remains interned in this first of several planned reburial ceremonies were excavated in 1999 during construction of a new waste treatment facility for the city of Blaine, and included remains taken to Colorado by archaeologist Gordon Tucker without tribal permission. “These bones are back where they belong,” said tribal council chairman Willie Jones, “and we can now get on with the healing process.” The volume of material removed will require several more re-burial ceremonies in the next few years, Jones said.

The remains include jewelry, tools and weapons of stone, shell and deer antler as well as human bones and bone fragments. Monday’s ceremonies, attended by several hundred people, included 46 caskets, specially constructed of old-growth cedar by Vancouver Island native Auggie Sylvester. While the exact number of individuals is difficult to determine, “I think you could easily say that there were more than 70 represented here today,” said tribal member and reburial project coordinator Sharon Kinsley. “We have a lot more screening to do, both here and at the landfill site on Kickerville Road where so much of the excavated dirt was trucked before construction was stopped. There, the identification will be more difficult.”

The re-burial site was once occupied by the Coast Salish fishing village of “Tsilitch,” home to several hundred people living in cedar longhouses and visited by many more Salish during salmon runs. It was abandoned in 1855 when local Indian bands were moved to the Lummi Reservation. Remains identified during construction of the first treatment plant on the site in the 1970s were carbon dated to be as old as 4,000 years.

Salish Elder Rose James of Kuyper Island, B.C., began the ceremony with song and sacred gestures as she and others escorted the caskets to the edge of the large square-shaped excavation, over 100 feet on each side and from 10 to 20 feet deep. Tribal workers’ faces were daubed with “Temexw,” a red ochre that distinguishes their role in handling the sacred material and protects them while working with such spiritually charged relics.

“We were impressed with their care and attention while working with them in screening and classifying relics,” said WWU anthropologist Sarah Campbell, who along with several of her students has been involved with the tribe in identifying remains. “A great deal of attention is paid to one’s personal attitude and frame of mind before you’re allowed to work at a site.”

Once the songs were completed, men from the tribe carried each casket down into the excavation and placed them gently side by side in two long rows. Each casket was then covered with a blanket and cedar boughs before other workers wheel barrowed loads of earth down into the excavation to cover them up. A gentle rain became heavier, driven by a cold west wind off the water, and most of those attending left for the continuation of the day’s events at the Stommish Hall on the Lummi Reservation. There, a meal was served followed by speeches frequently punctuated with “Hyushke” – thank you.

“It all went smoothly,” said Swinomish Elder Larry Campbell to the assembled crowd. “We know what our own loved ones want when we bury them because they tell us before they die,” he reflected, “but for these ancient ones we can’t be sure, so we do the best we can. Have you ever been yanked out of bed in the middle of the night by someone tearing your covers off? Well, these people have now been put back to bed and covered up, and we can rest for a while before continuing.”

Monday’s re-burial was followed by Tuesday’s “burning” ceremony in which traditional food is burned to nourish the spirits of the ancestors. The three-part ritual concluded Wednesday with a “sweeping” ceremony to spiritually cleanse the area following the unintended disturbance and restoration of the ancient relics.

Eventual plans for the site include establishing a heritage park with the help of local and state officials and private sources. Trillium Corporation CEO David Syre and vice-president Ken Hertz both attended Monday’s ceremonies and have pledged support for the project..

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