Crime

Totem poles, sacred carvings stolen from Lummi Reservation, cemetery

Theft of Lummi sculptures "has to stop"

Leland Cooper talks about the recent theft and damage of sculptures and totem poles at the Lummi Cemetery and the Lummi Reservation. Cooper's brother, Cha-Das-Ska-Dum, a well known artist is buried at Lummi Cemetery and a carved bear on his grave
Up Next
Leland Cooper talks about the recent theft and damage of sculptures and totem poles at the Lummi Cemetery and the Lummi Reservation. Cooper's brother, Cha-Das-Ska-Dum, a well known artist is buried at Lummi Cemetery and a carved bear on his grave

A 10-foot-tall carving of a wolf used to mark the grave of Alvin August Casimir in the Lummi Cemetery.

Today there’s a hole in the ground.

In tribal tradition, the dead come out to walk at night, says his daughter, Charlene Casimir-George. So the living must stay out of the cemetery after 3 or 4 p.m.

Perhaps that’s why no one was looking when her father’s totem pole was stolen from the site in early January. The pole had stood there since 1996, a year after Alvin Casimir died of kidney disease, his daughter said.

It’s one of at least four priceless Native American sculptures stolen or defaced in recent weeks on the reservation. Two of those were in the cemetery, with metal plaques engraved with the names of the dead.

“It’s offensive, because you’ve gone into spiritual grounds and taken something spiritual,” Casimir-George said. “I don’t know whether to call it a hate crime or greed – is it greed?”

Grave robbers defaced another smaller carving of a bear at the grave of Cha-das-ska-dum Which-ta-lum, a cultural specialist for the Lummi tribe who renounced his “white” name, Kenny Cooper, in the 1980s.

The thieves tried to pry it from the ground by Cha-das-ska-dum’s grave stone, but couldn’t do it. It was anchored too solidly. But a piece of a foot snapped, leaving a strip of wood dangling.

The damage is especially painful for his brother, Leland Cooper. For his entire life Cha-das-ska-dum fought to preserve his culture. As a cultural specialist for the tribe, Cha-das-ska-dum traveled the world playing a Native drum and flute, sitting down with religious leaders to talk about how to achieve global peace. His reputation won him audiences with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama.

Cha-das-ska-dum, a big man known for his big heart, died after a 14-hour heart surgery in 2000. An obituary in The Bellingham Herald called him a fisher, logger, advocate for the environment and human rights, musician, storyteller, healer and carver. He was 58.

“Our tradition is that wherever we are, our creator is there,” he told The Herald months before he died. “Whatever we’re looking at, the creator is there.”

Each carving has a story, and some are deeply personal. Casimir-George was hesitant to talk about the story behind her father’s pole, except that a friend from Canada made it in his memory, inspired by a special carved stick he used to carry.

To steal the giant totem pole, it would have taken two able-bodied people with a pickup, Casimir-George said, and the suspects appear to have left behind tire tracks in the grass. She saw the pole for the last time at a funeral the first weekend in January. The next weekend, at another funeral, her husband noticed it was gone.

Earlier that week, around 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 9, her nephew Ken Miller, 40, noticed a white Dodge pickup speeding into the cemetery. It struck him as strange. It was the “witching hour,” getting dark – and why would someone need to hurry into a cemetery? But he didn’t report it to police right away.

Meanwhile another tall totem pole, topped by a bird spreading its wings, went missing from Ed Jones’ home. And around Christmas when Jean Cultee, 73, was away with family in Marysville, a cedar carving of salmon disappeared from her front lawn. She didn’t realize for days. The 4- or 5-foot carving of a fish jumping out of the water was a gift from her son.

“I come from a big fishing family,” Cultee said. “So that’s why it’s special to me.”

Lummi police are investigating the thefts, Cooper said. For more than a week, Police Chief Ralph Long did not return repeated phone calls from The Herald seeking more information. He still had not returned calls as of Wednesday.

Cooper fears the carvings might end up in a pawn shop. He hopes someone will recognize the carvings and help bring them home to their rightful owners.

“Burial sites are very sacred to our Indian people,” he said. “They start fooling around in the cemetery? It’s sacred.”

All of the living victims were tribal elders.

“It’s bad enough that they’re stealing from the elders,” Casimir-George said. “But when you’re stealing from the dead, I don’t think you get any lower than that.”

Tips about the thefts can be directed to the Lummi Police Department at 360-312-2274.

Ed Jones’ last name was corrected Feb. 2.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

  Comments