Dozens of people turned out Friday to celebrate a groundbreaking for a new downtown park in Kodiak commemorating the ancestors of Alutiiq people whose remains were removed from the archipelago and are finally being returned.
Susan Malutin whose great grandmother was from Chirikof Island near Kodiak attended the groundbreaking, where she said she felt emotional.
“You know, it felt sad and happy at the same time,” said Malutin. “Sad because what a long, long journey they had to take in order to get back home and then happy because they are home.”
Last year, after a long struggle, Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository was successful in securing the return of more than 100 individual remains back to the island from the University of Indiana.
The Chirikof remains were repatriated under a federal act called NAGPRA, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It calls for any organization that receives federal funding to return remains in their care.
“The land belongs to the city and the Alutiiq Museum is taking care of organizing the development of the park and will also be involved in helping maintain the park after it is built,” said April Laktonen Counceller, Alutiiq and the executive director of the Alutiiq Museum.
Over the past 200 years, Counceller says, museums and archeologists removed more than a thousand remains of Alutiiq people from the Kodiak area. The park tells this story and celebrates their return.
“We’re probably talking about up to 1,200 people that have been returned home so far for reburial and we want the larger community to understand the scope of this issue. But also convey it in a positive way,” said Counceller.
At the center of the memorial, there will be a large concrete ring – a shape representing the passageway between the spirit world and the regular world in Alutiiq culture — containing a mass planting of blue forget-me-nots, Alaska’s state flower.
Counceller says she hopes her people’s success can serve as a model for other indigenous communities. As she looked out at the park that will celebrate the return of her ancestors, Malutin agreed.
“We are hoping, certainly, that this will be a spearhead for other Native groups to be able to have their ancestral remains repatriated. Even if this took a long time and their [were] oppositions,” said Malutin. “There are ways to be able to remedy so that those remains can return to their rightful homes and be honored in this same way.”
A private ceremony to bury the remains was held at a local cemetery earlier in the day. Construction of the park is scheduled to take place over the summer. The new park will be at the corner of Mill Bay Road and Kashevaroff Avenue.