The Organized Village of Kasaan is now the manager of its traditional sacred sites. Sealaska Corporation, Sealaska Heritage Institute and Kasaan agreed to this in a memorandum of understanding at a signing ceremony on Wednesday.
Though local the tribal government will eventually take over management of its sites, Sealaska will retain ownership. This has raised questions by other villages, such as the Organized Village of Kake who recently expressed concern in a letter to Rep. Don Young – Alaska that signing an understanding with Sealaska would not necessarily put the organizations on equal footing.
Sacred sites are one classification of sites requested by Sealaska in current land acquisition legislation, future sites is another. However, Rosita Worl, President of the Sealaska Heritage Institute said sacred sites are much more than a legislative designation.
“I am a child of the Sockeye Clan and I’m a child of this land. Land is the most sacred thing to us,” Worl said. “It is the basis of our being it is the basis of our culture. I know that Sealaska is entrusting the Kasaan people their rightful title and access for management of this land, Worl said.
She went on to say that Sealaska plans to protect not just known sacred sites but the “Shamanistic sites that we know are out there but we know our ancestors did not want to put on a map because they were fearful because people would come and desecrate those lands. So now we know we have to identify those sites to protect them.”
They “will also include cultural objects found on Sealaska land, which includes a canoe that was found in Kasaan.”
These historical, sacred sites are Native Alaskan graves, Worl said.
“According to our spiritual beliefs, we believe that the spirits remain with the body,” Worl said. “So we can’t deconsecrate certain areas.”
While cremation was the normal burial practice, shamans were interred at the sites, Worl said.
“We believe that the spirits of our shamans remain with their human remains and only the clan of that shaman can go there. So there are strict protocols about the care and the use of those sites,” Worl said.
Sen. Albert Kookesh, Sealaska Board Director said this was the first of many agreements between Sealaska and southeast villages regarding sacred sites. Sealaska took some of the land it could select as part of the Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act and designated them sacred sites, Kookesh said.
“We wanted to go in and protect gravesites, we want to go in and protect shamanistic sites,” Kookesh said. “We’ve seen ourselves people trespassing on those lands, people not taking care of them or respecting them for what they were. People not respecting where our grandfathers and grandmothers are buried. People not respecting villages we once lived in.”
So, Kookesh said, the only choice the corporation and Native Alaskans had was to select those sites and “protect them ourselves.”
“We are the only train left at the station,” Kookesh said. “Nobody else has an entitlement in southeast Alaska, among the native community, where they can get title to the sites and protect them.”
Kookesh said that once Sealaska got title to the sacred lands to protect them the corporation wanted an arrangement with those villages closest to the sites.
“Sealaska will not manage those lands,” Kookesh said. “They know better than we how those land should be protected, they know better than we how those lands should be treated with respect - we trust these people, they are our people. They will treat those lands better than anybody including the Forest Service,” he said.
Richard Peterson, president of the organized village of Kasaan, signed the memorandum for his tribe.
“This signifies the fact that as one of the smallest tribes, our biggest corporation looks to us as equals. They recognize that we are there and that we can care for our lands and for our ancestral homes.”
Peterson said that in addition to its historical significance the sacred land is used today by the tribe.
“We still utilize these areas. We are still our own people. We live our lives as traditional people. We still gather the foods, the medicines, the resources that we need to continue on and survive as Haida, as Tlingit, as Tsimshian,” Peterson said.
Peterson said the agreement is an argument against those who may want to divide tribes and corporations.
“We are the same people we look across the table at ourselves. We are not looking at strangers. And this is a living embodiment of that,” Peterson said.
The Organized Village of Kasaan is a federally recognized tribal government that was established in 1938.
However, not all tribes see Sealaska as a good partner.
The Organized Village of Kake wrote to Congressman Don Young and asked that sacred lands be given directly to tribes.
“Our preference is, of course, for you to … transfer ownership of cemeteries and historical places previously conveyed to Sealaska … as well as sacred lands … directly to the affected Tribes,” according to Kake’s letter dated Sept. 29, 2011.
Buck Lindekugel, Grassroots Attorney with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said he is concerned that under Sealaska ownership sacred lands could fall victim to real vulnerabilities of a corporation like bankruptcy.
“They could actually lose them,” Lindekugel said.
“Sealaska is a corporation,” Lindekugel said, and a corporation is not a tribe.” A tribe is a government that was set up to take care of the long-term interests of the community, Lindekugel said. “Corporations are about making money, while villages include money, but also include culture.”
SEACC doesn’t oppose native ownership of sacred sites, Lindekugel said. “We’re just not sure that Sealaska is the way to go.”
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.