Battle Over Semihamoo Bones; Lummi Spiritual Heritage Vies With Modern Municipal Necessity On A Spit Of Land In Blaine

BLAINE, Whatcom County - The bones steep unceremoniously in the early winter rains, difficult to distinguish amid the mud, gravel and discarded shells in the huge hole.

They sit at the hole's lip, stockpiled in three masses, more bones than the archaeologists, Blaine city officials and even the Lummi Indian tribe imagined would be there.

In the path of a long-quiet backhoe rests a brown shard about the size of an index finger.

"A clavicle," says a scientist on tour of the site.

A history of modern battles over ancient remains festers at this shut-down construction site on the Semiahmoo Spit.

This skinny stretch of city land, with its crisp Mount Baker view and bountiful woods nearby, long ago offered an abundant food supply for tribes of coastal Indians. Indeed, the Lummi and others have always known their family trees were rooted at Semiahmoo. Their stories told them so.

And sure enough, when the city of Blaine first constructed its sewage plant on this site about 30 years ago, authorities unearthed human remains and artifacts dating back nearly 4,000 years. The Lummi claimed them as their own.

Semiahmoo is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. And when Blaine's recent sewage-plant expansion was to be funded with a federal grant and loan, certain protections for the site were required.

If Indian burial sites or human remains were discovered, according to an agreement signed by federal, state and city officials, construction was to stop. The remains were to be treated "in a respectful manner," and the Lummi were to be notified.

The city hired a Colorado archaeology firm and trusted it to follow the rules.

The Lummi trusted the rules would protect these ancestral grounds on city property 23 miles from their reservation.

No one was surprised this summer when construction equipment gouged the deep hole and unearthed remains. But what stunned authorities, and hurt and outraged the Lummi, is what happened next.

A city-hired archaeologist loaded remains into his pickup and trundled them to Denver, allegedly without notifying anyone.

Construction crews also shoveled up 400 dump trucks' worth of material - human remains and all - and unloaded them at a private construction business seven miles away.

There, unknowingly, the owners used what they thought was good gravel to pave a road. They now own a new, 5-acre cemetery.

Before excavation was stopped at both sites, the Lummi say they recovered the remains of 55 people and more than 50 other human bones. How many more remains are out there could take years and millions of dollars to find out.

The Semiahmoo First Nation in British Columbia, who claim to be more closely related to the remains, say they have moved on, that their ancestors are protected, even if the bones are scattered.

But the Lummi say this pain makes them old.

What if backhoes had uprooted any other cemetery? the Lummi ask. What if this had been your mother, your father, your sister?

"My grandfather was born here. This was his home," says Sharon Kinley, the tribe's cultural project coordinator.

She stands at the Semiahmoo site. Rain sluices earth into the pit. Weeds sprout atop one of the stockpiles.

"These aren't abstract graves. These are our people."

Project on hold

When the State Office of Historic Preservation and the federal Rural Development agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, learned remains had been trucked to Colorado, they immediately shut down Blaine's $7.6 million project three years in the making.

The 4,300-member Lummi tribe, one of the state's largest and most vocal, wants the city plant relocated and the site designated a cemetery held in trust by the federal government on behalf of the Lummi.

If the city won't agree, the tribe intends to sue for $30 million in damages.

But the city estimates it'll cost between $25 million and $30 million to relocate the plant. And while it negotiates with the Lummi for a solution, city officials note the tribe was well aware of the expansion project.

"There was never an objection to the plant as far as we're aware," said Anthony Mortillaro, city manager. Because it's on city land, the project didn't need the tribe's approval.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Skagit County prosecutors, the latter at the request of Whatcom County, are trying to determine whether criminal charges are warranted, specifically whether the National Historic Preservation Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the state's Indian Graves and Records law have been violated.

The lead archaeologist has since resigned from his firm.

The Lummi can't believe this is happening a second time.

Thirty years ago, when Blaine first considered building its sewage plant, Western Washington University archaeologists unearthed remains from Blaine property, 40 from the spit and 20 from an area nearby.

It took the Lummi several years to recover the remains, which had been relocated to the university campus.

By the time they did, however, the city had constructed its sewage plant at the site, said Cha-das-ska-dum Which-ta-lum, a Lummi elder who was a tribal police officer then. They had no choice, he explained, but to rebury the remains in the reservation cemetery.

This time around though, the tribe successfully stalled the project before concrete was poured.

The Lummi have also launched a fund-raising campaign to raise $1.2 million to protect the remains from the rains. And in the long term, the tribe says it needs $7 million to restore Semiahmoo, sift through the dumping site and temporarily store the bones in the tribe's archives.

Excavation at the private construction business has stopped because the tribe needs the landowners' permission to access the remains. Owner Larry Freeman wants to help but must protect his interests, he explains, which is something the Lummi say they understand.

Freeman and his wife, Penny, say 5 acres of their property and a planned recycling business is tied up "in this mess." They, too, have a lawyer and want somebody to come up with $148,000 to compensate for their loss.

No notification

Blaine is appreciated as an outpost of sorts by motorists traveling to Canada. While the city of 3,600 has one of the largest resorts in the state - Resort Semiahmoo, with spacious homes, a hotel, a marina and an Arnold Palmer golf course - this is not a wealthy place.

In recent years, the city's sewer system has overflowed during heavy rains, discharging waste into the Semiahmoo Bay. State ecology officials ordered the city to correct the problem three times and has fined Blaine $10,500 for violations.

"It was undersized, overloaded and outdated," said city Public Works Director Grant Stewart about the waste-water-treatment plant.

To build on the historic site, Blaine signed an $85,000 contract with Golder and Associates, an archaeological firm with 80 offices worldwide, to shepherd any human remains.

The firm in turn assigned Gordon Tucker, an archaeologist with 25 years experience, as its on-site point man. Tucker helped write the plan that said Rural Development would notify the Lummi if remains were found.

"The plan said that before you take (any remains), you're supposed to contact everybody," said Allyson Brooks, the state's historic-preservation officer.

The construction at Semiahmoo began July 27. Over several days, crews dug an enormous hole: Imagine a square with each side half the length of a football field. It yielded about 9,000 cubic yards of fill.

For about a week and a half, trucks filed onto the Freeman property and deposited the grainy material dotted with what appeared to be a bunch of shells.

"We figured we'd be getting basically $80,000 to $90,000 worth of gravel for free," said the Freemans' son, Pat.

"When you're out there leveling with a dozer, you're not paying too much attention to what you're pushing," he said. "Who knew?"

At Semiahmoo, meanwhile, Tucker supervised the excavation. He stored remains found over several days in a construction shed on site, said his lawyer, Jeff Robinson of Seattle.

But the shed was not secure, and then, on his last day of work on the project, he packed the damp remains into paper bags. He put the bags into nondescript boxes, as a safety measure, then placed the boxes in the back of his truck and drove to Colorado without telling the tribe, the state or federal authorities, said Brooks, the state historic preservation officer.

"That's the whole point. He didn't notify anyone," said Brooks, who asked the USDA to shut down Blaine's project.

Fewer than six hours of excavation remained on the project that day in August when the Lummi found out about the remains.

"We were nearby and thought we'd stop at Semiahmoo and see the work," said Al Scott Johnnie, the tribe's cultural director.

When they got there, Johnnie said, he and another Lummi member saw a skeleton in a fetal position being pulled from the ground. They thought they were witnessing the discovery of the first remains.

But Johnnie said construction workers later told them about others the archaeologist had taken to Colorado.

The Lummi retrieved 44 sets of remains from Tucker in Colorado and 11 others exhumed later at Semiahmoo, the Lummi say.

The Golder firm immediately suspended Tucker without pay, but the archaeologist later resigned. He did so, his lawyer said, as "a gesture to the Lummi that he understood they were very upset."

Tucker now works for another Colorado-based archaeology firm and isn't talking to the media.

But Robinson said his client is a "very spiritual man" who never wanted to show any disrespect. In fact, the archaeologist had urged the city to have the Lummi on site during excavation. Robinson said city employees and construction workers were well aware remains had been unearthed.

"Gordon did what he did in an open fashion. He wasn't trying to hide it from anyone," Robinson said. "It was the city who should have been responsible for notifying the Lummi.

"I think in some ways, Gordon is being made a scapegoat for a larger decision. The decision to put the waste-water-treatment plant on the site in the first place."

City officials argue it was up to the Golder archaeologists - the experts - to guide them.

"Everyone on the site knew about the remains. They were gossiping," said Stewart, Blaine's public works director.

"But the person who was responsible for the procedures was the archaeologist. That was in their scope."

The archaeology firm acknowledges its employee erred in not alerting anyone, but cannot explain his actions.

"This is sensitive business," said Rebecca Balcom, a principal in Golder's Calgary offices. "I wish he had made the calls. It's difficult to rectify a mistake."

Spirits are strong

For three weeks this fall at the Freeman site, the Lummi began their daily excavation work at dawn, kneeling at the new road, digging by hand and screening the dirt.

To protect the remains, they erected a blue-and-white Lummi Nation canopy usually used for celebratory events. They blanketed the road with plastic tarps to shield it from the Northwest rains. They stationed a guard and fenced in the enormous mound of dirt.

They also placed a guard at Semiahmoo, where pumps buzz against the rising rain water.

To the untrained eye, the two sites look empty except for the crows. To the tribe, they are vulnerable wounds.

Lummi elders treasure vivid memories of Semiahmoo and days at the beach before any sewage plant stood here. Families digging for horse clams and butter clams. The women canning or drying them behind the stove.

"Now they own this," said Vivian George, a 62-year-old Lummi, who stood at the Semiahmoo construction site one recent morning. "They have this padlocked."

"This isn't just a little Indian nation feeling bad because of a few bones," says Willie Jones, the tribe's treasurer, looking through the fence at the Freeman mound. "These were trampled on."

The spirits, they explain, are strong. More powerful than those who are alive. It is critical to show their ancestors they are not forgotten.

When someone dies, the Lummi customarily burn the deceased's favorite foods or belongings. The tribe has conducted one burning at the Freeman site. But the right thing to do, they maintain, is to rebury their ancestors at Semiahmoo.

The Lummi have refused Whatcom County's offer to bury the remains elsewhere on the spit. And they have dismissed the tiny Semiahmoo First Nation tribe of British Columbia, who say the Lummi's goals aren't realistic.

In the ideal world, said Bernard Charles, the Semiahmoos' grand chief, the remains would be re-buried where they were uncovered. His tribe - which isn't fighting for the remains - wants the city project to proceed because of concern for the environment without the expanded sewage-treatment plant.

But the Lummi are known for their boldness: They took on the IRS in 1988 to protest taxes on income from treaty rights. They won.

They are ambitious: The tribe has worked 10 years to acquire and preserve an ancient stand of forest at nearby Arlecho Creek.

They are media savvy: Brochures announce their Semiahmoo campaign and a media professional is helping out.

And in this case, they are resolute.

`So many bones'

These days, the Lummi find their emotional strength in a woman in her 90s named Rose James. They call her Granny Rose.

She is chestnut brown, furrows ribboning her face, and has a way of speaking that is soft and slow, akin to the way a child colors inside the lines.

"There are so many bones," explains Granny Rose, an elder from Kuper Island, B.C., who is respected for her ability to communicate with those who have passed on. "People may think that's not something. But that's really something to us."

The other day, Granny Rose sat in a Toyota 4-Runner amid boxes of remains collected that morning at Semiahmoo. The truck was leading a small caravan of five back to the reservation, past a refinery, aluminum plant, RVs and cows. It suddenly pulled over.

Granny Rose had something to tell the Lummi; a group of 15 gathered around to listen.

"Some of these people are crying," she said about their ancestors. "They've been waiting there a long time. They are grateful to you children for the work that you are doing."

The Lummi tribal members stood with their heads bowed and thanked her. Then they climbed back into their cars and drove further south to the reservation where they unloaded seven boxes of artifacts and remains.

Florangela Davila's phone message number is 206-464-2916. Her e-mail address is