Nearly 2 acres on Semiahmoo Spit were transferred to Lummi Nation on Thursday, bringing some closure to a painful period that began about 18 years ago when Native American remains there were dug up and taken away from the ancient burial grounds.
“Today is not about any of the mistakes that have been made over the last 18 years, but rather the hard work and commitment to do our best to make things right. We only pray that we do right by the ancestors,” Lummi Chairman Timothy Ballew II said during a signing ceremony under blue skies at the spit.
The City of Blaine turned over the land, which the tribe planned to put into trust.
More than 100 graves were uncovered in August 1999 when crews dug up land for the city’s expansion of its sewage treatment plant. About 13,500 cubic meters were disturbed back then, or as much as 450 dump truck loads.
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The land is now covered in grass.
“This was all a big open grave site,” Ballew said in an interview.
Instead of halting construction and leaving the remains in place, an employee for an Atlanta-based archeology consultant working on the project packed up remains from 44 of the graves and took them to his office in Denver. Doing so violated state law and an agreement with the state Historical Preservation Office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Office and the Federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Years of lawsuits ensued, and, through settlements, the tribe received millions of dollars from an insurance company covering the city and from the archeology consultant. The land transfer grew from an agreement between Lummi Nation and the City of Blaine in 2001.
Settlement money helped cover some of the cost of of recovering the remains and artifacts, and reburying their ancestors on the spit, the site of the ancient village of Si’ke. It took nearly 300 men and women, and years of somber painstaking work to recover more than 43,000 human remains.
Tribal members traveled to Colorado to retrieve the remains taken there. They also sifted through tons of dirt by hand, at Semiahmoo Spit and at a Kickerville Road site where material from the construction was dumped and spread over three acres.
The first reburial occurred in December 2001. The last in September 2013.
“We know this is sacred land,” Blaine Mayor Harry Robinson said Thursday during the ceremony, which included drumming and singing by the Blackhawk Singers and statements by Lummi elders.
Speakers said they hope their ancestors will be able to rest a little better now on land that will remain protected and undisturbed, and that healing can occur.
The city’s treatment plant was eventually built on Marine Drive, across Drayton Harbor from the burial grounds.
To Ballew, the land transfer was the “best attempt to make things right for our ancestors that rest here.”