Construction settlement brings relief to Lummis

LUMMI NATION — Paul Johnnie spends every day sorting the remains of his tribe with a spade. He wears a solemn expression and two orange streaks of paint on each cheek, a traditional mark of protection.

He and 10 other men are searching through a pile of dirt one bucketful at a time, looking for remains of graves disturbed five years ago in an attempt to expand a wastewater-treatment plant. The search for bones, pieces of pottery and tools continues even as this week the Lummi Nation settled its lawsuit with Golder Associates, an Atlanta-based firm, for $4.25 million.

The city of Blaine hired a Golder Associates archaeology consultant in 1999 to oversee construction at the Semiahmoo Spit, a former Lummi village, but workers dug through human remains and Lummi artifacts, hauling 400 truckloads to three acres of nearby private property for use as fill and leaving several huge piles at the spit.

The archaeologist even loaded remains into the back of his pickup and drove to Denver, allegedly without notifying the tribe.

The settlement legitimized the company's apology and ensured the tribe would be able to afford to rebury its dead, said Tribal Chairman Darrell Hillaire. It also brought some relief to a people still grieving the displacement of more than 100 members of their families.

"There's this collective release of tension, I guess, that I sense," Hillaire said.

The settlement includes $3.5 million to the tribe itself, plus $750,000 to be divided among 1,236 tribal members whose ancestors were buried at Semiahmoo. Those tribal members can keep the money or donate their $606 portion to a park commemorating the tribal village or the reburial effort.

Steve Thompson, the president of Golder Associates, said he couldn't comment beyond a joint statement to the media yesterday. That statement said neither the Lummi nor Golder admits liability, but both parties "regret what happened during construction."

The archaeologist who drove to Denver with the tribe's ancestral remains was put on leave, then resigned, Thompson said.

The litigation may be over this week, but tribal leaders say they have two to four years of work left. In July, they plan to rebury what they've unearthed so far next to the existing sewage plant.

Since halting construction in 1999, Blaine city officials have abandoned plans for an expanded sewage-treatment plant at Semiahmoo Spit, a pointy strip of sand northwest of Blaine and about 25 miles from the Lummi reservation.

Steve Banham, the city's public-works director, said the city will probably close the Semiahmoo plant altogether once officials figure out where to build a new plant.

Tribal leaders say planning a Heritage Park at the site has eased their pain.

"We have to look at an end product I think for Lummi to actually make it through this whole thing," Willie Jones, the tribe's vice chairman, said yesterday. The smell of sewage and the whir of the treatment plant drifted through the air as he looked at the waterfront park's proposed location.

"I'm excited now because I can see the end, I can actually start to see the end," he said. "I can feel a closure. We can move on."

Work of sorting remains

Johnnie, 41, learned only a few years ago that his ancestors were gravediggers for the Lummi, a family history that qualified him for the task of sorting remains. He quit his job in Portland and moved to his tribe's reservation near Bellingham.

"I just knew that I had to come back here and complete it — finish what we started here," he said.

The work crew begins each day just after daylight with a ceremony to prepare their minds for the work. They fast until their workday ends around 3 p.m. Two of the men use shovels and picks to fill 5-gallon buckets with dirt and gravel.

The others dump the buckets into screens that hang a few feet off the ground. They shake and sift, retrieving small pieces of glass, tools made of rock and sometimes pieces of bone, which they sort in paper sacks stored in a small plywood enclosure. Out of respect, there is no laughter or chatter.

"The work is like going to a funeral every day," said Sharon Kinley, a Lummi anthropologist whose husband leads the reburial crew.

Although the work is emotionally grueling, Johnnie says he feels a sense of purpose and significance. And the experience has made him value his culture and his family more. As he runs his fingers through the dirt, he thinks of those who lived before him and the tools they made, the work they did.

"It's pretty well amazing how they did it all by hand," he said.

And now he's doing it all by hand, one bucket at a time.

Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or