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Native ceremony honors dead at Gastineau

City acknowledges more bodies found, but construction work will continue

Posted: July 17, 2012 - 6:59pm  |  Updated: July 18, 2012 - 12:03am
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Father Simeon Johnson of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church leads a blessing Tuesday for the bodies found and disturbed during the remodel of the Gastineau Community School last month.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Father Simeon Johnson of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church leads a blessing Tuesday for the bodies found and disturbed during the remodel of the Gastineau Community School last month.

Leaders of the local Native community, representatives of the City and Borough of Juneau and members of the clergy honored the dead who lie buried on the grounds of Gastineau Community School in Douglas at a blessing ceremony Tuesday afternoon, expressing their desire to learn from the events.

A ground-penetrating radar scan conducted last month discovered several “anomalies” below the surface at Gastineau, and a headstone from 1927 and gravesite were uncovered June 21 by construction workers. City officials acknowledged Tuesday that an unknown number of human remains are still buried at the school.

Deputy City Manager Rob Steedle said the remains of five individuals, including an unborn child and mother previously misidentified as Sam Goldstein last month, had been uncovered and reinterred. He said the total number of bodies remaining on the grounds has not been determined.

“We have removed and reinterred some here, but we did not want to disturb any graves that did not need to be disturbed. That was the wish of the (tribal) elders,” said Steedle.

The Douglas Indian Association’s tribal administrator, Andrea Cadiente-Laiti, acted as master of ceremonies. She thanked Steedle and other CBJ staff for their work with the DIA on the matter.

“It was a very difficult time for us, in that one of the things that we came to grips with was that we had to transcend the anger of generations,” Cadiente-Laiti said. “And we had to recognize that all of us who are in place now had to release any anger that we held for this wrongdoing of the past and recognize that the CBJ officials in place are truly remorseful for something that they, in this current time, did not have a hand in.”

Several elders recounted, at times with obvious emotion, their formative years in the community, before Gastineau was built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Helen Sarabia, elder of the Gaanaxteidi clan, said she believes she knew people who had been buried beneath what is now Gastineau Community School and its grounds, including the pregnant woman whose gravesite was dug up last month.

“These were my stomping grounds, as you might say,” said Sarabia. “And I’m sure I know most of these people that are buried here. And God rest their souls.”

Mayor Bruce Botelho, flanked by Assembly members Ruth Danner, Karen Crane, Carlton Smith, Jesse Kiehl and Mary Becker, as well as Steedle, acting Engineering director John Bohan and City Manager Kim Kiefer, offered a response in accordance with Tlingit tradition.

“One can hope that what comes out of here is some greater understanding of the things that were done that ought not to have been done, and (that) we’ll also gain some understanding of the things that should have been done that were not done,” Botelho said.

Cadiente-Laiti said the elders had decided to give the go-ahead for construction to proceed. She and Bohan said work outside the school is expected to resume Wednesday.

“Despite the heartbreak of the past, true to our elders in terms of where they see their people and their legacy that they have made this ultimate decision,” said Cadiente-Laiti. “That is the decision they made for our children, because we cherish them. So we do entrust our kids back into this school, and to the safety and the protection of the (Juneau) School District.”

In his own brief response, the JSD Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich, praised the elders and said he hopes “we will benefit from the lessons learned of these events.”

“We believe that those departed souls revealed themselves so that we could correct a wrong,” said Cadiente-Laiti after Gelbrich’s remarks. “And as hurtful as the process has been, I feel very much in my heart that we are on the road to healing, and we are on the road to a better and a more understanding and a more culturally sensitive relationship with the city government.”

The Rev. Simeon Johnson of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, the Rev. Pat Travers of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Capt. Donald Warriner of the Salvation Army, DIA tribal officer Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, and Deisheetaan clan elder Selina Everson offered blessings for the dead.

Travers remarked, “This truly is a holy ground — maybe even holier now by the fact that our children will continue to be educated here. We pray also that the spirits of those who have rested here might bless and sustain the children who, in the coming years, will study here.”

Becker, who was once a teacher at Gastineau, said the ceremony was “very meaningful.”

“It’s a wonderful school, and it has a real community feeling,” Becker added.

Cadiente-Laiti said she expects another blessing ceremony will be held inside the school when it reopens for school next month, in accordance with elders’ wishes.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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