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Respecting Ancestors

Tlingit storyteller cleans up Native burial ground

Posted: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tlingit storyteller Bob Sam estimates that over the last 26 years, he has restored more than 100,000 graves and repatriated more than 800 bodies.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

So when Sam, who hails from Sitka, visited the Russian Orthodox Cemetery on Glacier Avenue in Juneau last year to participate in a ceremony honoring Chief Kowee, his mother's grandfather, he saw a burial ground in dire need of his attention.

It was littered with cigarette butts and trash and covered in brush. Gravestones were covered in moss, tipped over, or sunken into the ground.

Last spring, Sam began cleaning out salmonberry bushes and brush. He righted headstones and cleaned them off. He worked to level graves.

And now, there's a tangible difference.

Sam, now 56, began cleaning out cemeteries full time 26 years ago, after a housing project "completely destroyed" an old cemetery in Sitka. He found a niche researching and remembering the "forgotten places" of Southeast Alaska.

"There's something nice about going places where your ancestors used to be," he said. "Most people are afraid of these kinds of places. I lost my fear a long time ago."

On the contrary, Sam said he enjoys finding "something tangible I can have with my ancestors."

In the Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Juneau, that's a history that goes back countless generations. Sam said the area has been a Native burial ground for thousands of years.

Time has obscured the graves in more ways than one, however.

"Officially, this part doesn't even exist," Sam said. "It's very neglected... you have to really research to find any information."

Challenges

St. Nicholas Church Parish Council member, scholar and ethnographer Richard Dauenhauer said the Russian Orthodox cemetery suffered "severe vandalism" in the 1940s, from which it never really recovered.

Then, in more recent years, young people used it as a place to hang out and smoke.

"Bob has been working to clean it out, get the brush out," Dauenhauer said. "We had done it from time to time, but nothing of the scale he's doing."

Cemeteries maintained by a company or by a city tend to be in better shape, he said. But in Juneau, trees and brush "take over" without constant maintenance. Glacial rebound also presents problems, as it makes things "topsy turvy." Soil has accumulated on old graves, sometimes burying markers up to a foot deep - and that's for those that have markers that have lasted through the years.

"It had to be taken care of by the church members themselves. That becomes increasingly difficult to do, and we didn't have the manpower," he said.

"Over time, people lose a sense of who's buried there," Dauenhauer said. "This has happened in other places in the Juneau area, too. If people have relatives there, they maintain it, but it it's old enough there's no living memory of who's buried there, you lose that."

Parks and Recreation Landscapes Supervisor Terry Hinkley said there's very little information on the grave sites in that section of the cemetery. And in Evergreen itself, he said there are several people they know are buried there - but they don't know where. Wooden markers have rotted away, leaving many graves without headstones and unmarked.

The Russian Orthodox Cemetery is separate from Evergreen Cemetery, which is owned and maintained by the city. Though different sections of Evergreen cemetery are dedicated to different groups, the city owns and maintains all but the Catholic section, Hinkley said. Parks and Recreation Director Marc Matsil said the department's hundreds of volunteers also help with maintenance of its many spaces, including Evergreen Cemetery.

Dick Kent, President of the Gastineau Genealogical Society, said cleaning graves is "a rather ticklish subject."

"You've got to be careful," he said. "What you use on a monument to clean it may in effect destroy the printing on it."

But Sam not only has an ancestor commemorated in the cemetery, he knows the descendants of many of those buried there. He communicates with them about the graves and the work he's doing.

"I think most of the community here really supports this," he said. "A clean cemetery is the sign of a healthy community. That's what sets us aside from animals - how we take care of our dead. It's what made us who we are."

The future

Dauenhauer and his wife, Nora, who is Tlingit, said they see a racial discrepancy in the cemeteries' histories.

"The pattern has been historically of abuse of Native and Orthodox sites in contrast to white and Protestant sites," Richard Dauenhauer said. "It has to do with the whole history of Alaska and race relations.... this is just one of many examples."

That's a pattern Sam is working to change, however - and he said he can already see it, with kids more apt to pick up after themselves in an area that's well-maintained.

"If I make this place look nice, the kids will respect it," he said.

He's also working to engage the younger generation in other ways. The Native student group at UAS, Wooch.Een Club, heard about Sam's work. He went and talked to them last Friday, and they plan on coming to the cemetery to help him clean out brush on Saturday.

Sam said after he finishes with the Russian Orthodox cemetery, he plans on moving on to Douglas burial grounds, which are even more obscure. Many of them were encroached by the road, with 11 of the graves moved to Evergreen, Hinkley said. Hinkley also said many records were lost in a fire in the 1930s.

"It's actually very hard work ... there's so much neglect," Sam said. "I think that's real common all over the place, in most cemeteries of any culture. Most of the living are concerned with the living - which is OK - and not many people really deal with cemetery issues at all. I guess that's normal. But somebody has to take care of these places. Somebody has to do the work."

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.



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