A procession, song and prayer commemorated a transfer of land at Semiahmoo, from the city of Blaine to the Lummi Nation.
SEMIAHMOO SPIT, Whatcom County — 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.
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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, siting 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.
The contractor involved, Golder Associates, hired by the city in 1999 to oversee construction of the project, in 2004 settled a federal lawsuit brought by the tribe. In all the company paid $3.5 million to the Lummi tribal government, and another $750,000 divided in payments to the 1,236 tribal members whose ancestors were buried at Semiahmoo — 30 percent of the tribe. The company at the time did not admit liability, but a spokesman expressed regret for what occurred. No one at Golder returned a call and email for comment Thursday.
For years after the job was shut down, tribal members worked at the site, slowly hand-sifting through the tons of material stockpiled and recovered.
“There is no word for it,” said Ralph Tom, a Lummi tribal member who did some of that work. He was taping off the area of reburials for protection in preparation for the ceremony Thursday; no one was to step in the place where the ancestors lay.
A principal winter village site of the Lummi people, the site was violated repeatedly over the years. Waste oil was dumped on the site in the 1960s. It was disturbed when the city built a wastewater treatment plant — the one it had wanted to expand — in the 1970s. And it was disturbed again in the project that was ultimately abandoned.
The village site and burial grounds extend far beyond the limits of the property deeded to the tribe. But still, it was something, tribal leaders said, important far beyond its size.
“We have been through an awful lot,” said Bill James, chief of the Lummi Nation. “We are going through a healing process, and hope our ancestors are going to rest a little better than they have in the past. We know they are with us today.”
The city of Blaine formally apologized in 1999 and eventually relocated its $30 million wastewater treatment-plant project, building the Lighthouse Point Reclamation Facility on the other side of Blaine Spit. Only a pumping facility remains at the original construction site today. The tribe’s hope now is that the ancestors’ resting place will never again be disturbed.
Steve Kinley said his father’s father was probably born on the spit. Kinley was named Semiahmoo project manager by his tribe after the disturbance, charged with figuring out what to do next. “We called that phase calm hearts and strong minds,” he said. “It was to the point of adversarial relationships. That was paralyzing. No one gets well that way.”
All these years later, painful as it was, Darrell Hillaire, a former tribal council chairman at Lummi, said there are lessons in what happened at Semiahmoo.
“Things can be resolved,” Hillaire said. “Progress can happen. Our way of life can be protected. It takes diligence on all sides.”