JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Gov. Mike Dunleavy has signed legislation aimed at protecting the graves of Unangax people sent to internment camps in southeast Alaska during World War II.
“We want their descendants to know it’s not been forgotten,” Dunleavy said at Tuesday’s bill signing.
The measure expands the boundaries of Funter Bay State Marine Park to include the Admiralty Island cemetery site and directs that management of the area include protection of the cemetery.
The cemetery holds the graves of people who died at Funter Bay during World War II. The U.S. government forced people from their homes in the Aleutian Islands more than 1,000 miles away to internment camps after Japanese troops invaded.
According to the National Park Service, many of those taken from their homes were only allowed a suitcase to bring with them. Conditions at the relocation sites were poor and medical care was “often nonexistent,” according to the agency, which has said 32 people died at the Funter Bay camp.
Martin Stepetin Sr., whose grandparents were among those relocated, pushed for protections for the cemetery site, the Juneau Empire reported. He said it felt like a weight had been lifted off him, with the bill becoming law.
“Across the country, we’ve seen sacred ground disrespected,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to forget what happened here. We’re still capable of this if we don’t remember what happened.”
The bill signing was carried via video conference to communities outside Juneau, where the ceremony was held.
Amos Philemonoff, president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, in a statement said following the forced relocation, “our people were held in overcrowded bunk houses in an old, abandoned cannery a thousand miles from home without clean water, enough food, basic medical care and other necessities.”
Given the site’s historical significance “and its deep meaning to our people and our culture, it is critical to protect the site and ensure that this dark period in our history will never be forgotten,” Philemonoff said.
Patrick Pletnikoff, mayor of the City of St. George, said with the law’s passage, “the families of those who died in the internment camps at Funter Bay will be able to take care of the graves of their ancestors, and Alaskans will always have access to the site.”