Alutiiq Ancestors Memorial park opening highlights struggle to repatriate ancestral remains

The Kodiak Alutiiq /Sugpiaq Repatriation Commission has been working for years to recover artifacts and human remains of the community’s ancestors. As part of that effort, a new park in downtown Kodiak is dedicated to ancestors uprooted from their homeland.

More than a thousand metal salmon cutouts, each representing a repatriated Alutiiq ancestor, cover the inside of the archway at the Ancestors Memorial park in downtown Kodiak. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

Under the wooden archway entrance to the Ancestors Memorial park, more than a thousand silver salmon cutouts line the sides. Each one represents an ancestor brought home to the island. A Russian Orthodox priest gives the new park a blessing, sprinkling holy water among a few dozen community members gathered in the rain for the somber ceremony.

For at least 7,000 years, the Alutiiq, or Sugpiak, people have lived across the Kodiak Archipelago stretching from the Alaska Peninsula up to Kachemak Bay and beyond.

Margaret Roberts is a slight woman in her 70s, standing about five feet tall in the nearby Alutiiq Museum. “When I was growing up, we didn’t have anything … We just didn’t,” she says. “So much was taken away from Kodiak Island. And many of our elders had a lot of hurt inside of them because what they had endured.”

Despite her small stature, Roberts is a commanding presence here. She’s chair of the Alutiiq Heritage Foundation, which is working to get these items back — and not just things.

In a sometimes emotional speech, she tells the story of two young girls, ages 11 and 13, who were relocated from nearby Woody Island to the Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania. They both died there.

It’s a personal story. One of the girls was a relative. “We need to bring them home,” she says. “Honor, love, and respect for all they suffered, and rebury them home again on Kodiak Island.”

Margaret Roberts, chair of the Alutiiq Heritage Foundation, poses in the Alutiiq Museum gallery following the opening of the Ancestors Memorial Park in downtown Kodiak. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

As recently as the last century, archaeologists would excavate Alaska Native graves, often without the consent of tribes. Some did it in the name of trying to preserve what they feared was a vanishing culture. But well-meaning or not, the result was thousands of people’s ancestors put on a shelf, or displayed in cases for museum visitors to gawk at.

Passage of legislation the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990 was an attempt to remedy those wrongs. It directs all federally funded organizations to return the human remains and sacred objects of Native Americans to their original communities.

It’s been decades since the struggle began to repatriate cultural artifacts and ancestors remains. Susan Malutin, an Alutiiq artist says the process helps with closure.

“They may have taken their remains, but they didn’t take their spirit from us,” she says, standing in the museum gallery. “And now both are returned. And both are together again.”

About two dozen Native corporations and tribal councils have signed on to the Kodiak Alutiiq/Sugpiaq Repatriation Commission with the goal of bringing ancestral remains and artifacts home.

Malutin says it’s brought people together from across the archipelago.

“This community is an amazing community. So many work together and all the different cultures that are here all contributed as one unit. It is, like they say, a village. And Kodiak is an amazing village. We’re very unique in all the efforts that are done to have something like this come together.”

Inside the gallery, Alutiiq dancers are about to give a performance in honor of the new memorial. The small crowd from the park is packed into the museum gallery, standing among artifacts displayed in glass cases.

“Cama’i!” Candace Branson, language project manager for the Sun’aq tribe greets the audience. “We are so excited to be here, dancing to honor our ancestors. We talked before coming on, we want to honor the ancestors that we can remember,” she says, “and the ancestors that we can’t remember, or don’t remember.”

Candace Branson introduces the next song she and and her fellow Alutiiq dancers will perform. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)
Alutiiq dancers perform at the Alutiiq Museum in downtown Kodiak. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

Some of the dancers are as young as 4. Many are dressed in elaborate black, red, and white robes. Beaded headdresses, masks and fur hoods complete the ensemble. Almost 20 dancers altogether, they instantly make a powerful impression, filling the small gallery with voices and drum beats.

Roberts says watching young people embrace their cultural is stirring. It gives her hope.

“It always brings tears to my eyes and makes my heart swell,” she says. “We’ve come a long, long way.”

At one time, the community was working to repatriate the remains hundreds of individuals at once. With the remains from more than 1,200 people recovered so far, now it can be more focused: sometimes working on recovering a single bone from a museum or university collection.

The goal is to give respect to the ancestors — to bring them home to a final resting place with decency.

As this work continues, the newly built Ancestors Park in downtown Kodiak, will serve as a reminder of the importance of protecting the archipelago’s heritage.

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