Native tribal leaders worry about road access to cultural landmarks

Petroglyphs, burial sites in Berners Bay a treasure for many

Posted: Sunday, July 16, 2006

Rosa Miller, tribal leader of Juneau's Auk Kwaan, faces an uphill battle in keeping development far away from her tribe's culturally significant spots in Berners Bay.

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Miller, still spry in her 80s, protests the type of projects in Berners Bay that other Natives in the business world have supported.

"For years, my mother told me to bite my tongue. Then, she told me to go ahead. I became vocal after that," Miller explained last week.

For example, Miller has advocated against timber, road and mine development in the hotly contested bay 45 miles northwest of downtown Juneau.

"I've been battling for years to protect Berners Bay," Miller said.

As the state awaits its final permissions to build the Juneau access project through Berners Bay - linking Juneau by pavement to a new ferry terminal at the Katzehin River - Miller is once again worried about the Auk Kwaan's cultural sites.

Miller recently rode by boat with U.S. Forest Service staff to look at one sacred tribal area in Berners Bay.

"That was the site of our three medicine men," Miller said last week.

"Only certain people can go near a medicine man's burial site," she said.

But several times since the 1970s, items have been taken from the shamans' graves. Their bones have been disturbed, then reburied by their Native descendants, according to archaeological accounts and legal affidavits.

Not far away, in a more accessible location along the beach fringe, are petroglyphs - carvings etched in rock.

A beaten trail - taken by many Juneau boaters who visit Berners Bay - leads to one particularly large and well-known rock bearing numerous petroglyphs.

These petroglyphs also have significance to the Auk Kwaan. "They show ownership," Miller said.

"We object to the road ... . Enough of our burial sites have been desecrated. When is it going to stop?" Miller said.

"It's my understanding that we are avoiding all culturally sensitive (areas)," responded Mary Siroky, a special assistant to the state Transportation and Public Facilities commissioner.

State transportation officials plan to route the Juneau access road 50 feet - or in some cases much greater distances - from the intertidal zone, she said.

"The cultural sites are all in the intertidal area," Siroky asserted.

But expanded road access clearly poses new challenges in guarding the bay's cultural resources, others say.

"It's pretty hard when the road system is going close to the site. You keep your fingers crossed that nothing is going to happen," said Steven Henrikson, curator of collections for the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

Siroky said the positive side of access to Berners Bay is the new opportunity for people who don't have a boat to see its highlights.

"As trails get built, you force them away from the culturally sensitive areas," Siroky said, adding, "If you make access easy, that's where people will go."

The road, however, will skirt areas near the shaman burials and the petroglyphs.

This story will not discuss the location of shaman burial sites. The petroglyph site - which is accessible by trail from the Berners Bay beach fringe - is relatively close to the highway. It is within 1,000 feet of the road's centerline, said Judith Bittner, the state's historic preservation officer.

Yet the Berners Bay petroglyphs have been designated as outside the state's official "area of potential effect" for the Juneau access project.

In other words, it is not on land that will be directly disturbed by the road, according to Bittner.

Though state and federal officials do not locate the rocks or the burial places on maps - to shield them from vandalism - these places are also well-known to the U.S. Forest Service.

"This is a known site ... known (to archaeologists) for over 20 years," said Juneau Ranger District archeologist Myra Gilliam.

Indeed, historical accounts of Auk Kwaan village sites in Berners Bay were recorded on paper in the 1940s.

The stories have lived on for centuries, through oral history, among the Auk Kwaan.

The Auk Kwaan left their villages in the outlying areas of Juneau to work in the developing gold mines.

But Berners Bay was "the biggest" place for picking berries for the local Natives, said one Native man, David Wallace, one of 88 interviewed in Southeast Alaska in the 1940s by a research team made up of a University of California, Los Angeles anthropologist and the chief counsel to the Office of Indian Affairs.

The researchers, Walter Goldschmidt and Theodore Haas, went on to publish a seminal study titled "Possessory Rights of the Natives of Southeast Alaska."

"The smokehouses are still there, but they are all broken down now. There used to be a village at Berners Bay at two places, one up between the Berners and Lace Rivers and one down near the mouth of the Lace River. These were where the native people stayed year round," according to the Goldschmidt and Haas' interview with David Wallace.

Other Natives have claimed up to five villages in Berners Bay.

The bay was considered a dividing line between the Haines and the Auk Kwaan Natives, according to another Native man, Jake Cropley, interviewed by Goldschmidt and Haas.

"We are the original settlers here," Miller said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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