VANCOUVER, Wash. - On the north banks of the Columbia River in this modern
day town opposite Portland, Ore. sits the historic site of a former fort
used by the fabled Hudson's Bay Company in the 19th century. The site,
designated the Vancouver National Historic Reserve, has continued to
operate as a military base long past the days of Hudson's Bay.
In the summer of 2003, human remains were found at the site during a
construction project by the city of Vancouver on Army property being
converted to civilian use.
Officials later decided that they had been reburied. Documentation revealed
that a nearby cemetery contained the remains of a diverse group of people.
Among them were English, Portuguese, French Canadians and representatives
of at least 30 Northwest American Indians as well as Native Hawaiians.
Later, some U.S. soldiers were buried in the area.
Several of the remains were later re-interred, but that has not stopped
member tribes of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians from asking
"We're going to meet with a [Army] colonel from [Washington, D.C.] next
week in Portland and we just want some questions answered," said Gerald
Reed, an Umatilla tribal member who serves as co-chairman of the Culture
and Elders Committee of the Affiliated Tribes.
Reed said that among the questions he wants answered is what the Army plans
to do with the site.
Doug Wilson, an archeologist for the National Park Service, said that the
remains were most likely reburied in the 1860s. They were moved to the
cemetery proper and re-interred there early last summer.
Wilson said the site is barely visible currently and the Army is debating
whether to add some kind of a marker mentioning the cemetery.
Looting has also been a constant problem and a worry of both the federal
government and the region's tribes. After a dry period last summer, the
Columbia River ran very low, exposing several ancient American Indian
sites; Reed said that there was widespread looting of materials. To avoid
further looting, neither Reed nor Wilson has revealed the location of the
Ft. Vancouver remains.
Reed maintained that the tribes have certain rights under the Native
American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), signed in the
early 1990s by the first President Bush, which dictated that remains be
returned to the most likely descendants. Reed wants to make sure that those
rules are followed.
Wilson said that the Army plans to fully comply with NAGPRA and that
several governmental entities, including the Army and the National Park
Service, will conduct meetings that will include regional tribes to decide
what to do with the cemetery.
The cemetery also contains Native Hawaiian remains, which are also covered
under NAGPRA. Many Hawaiians of that era served as crewmembers aboard
oceangoing vessels and often traveled to various points along the Pacific.
For example, Native Hawaiians were among the Russian settlers at Fort Ross
along Northern California's Sonoma County coast in the early 19th century.
Many of the burials at the cemetery came from a nearby town that was
comprised mainly of workers providing services for Hudson's Bay.
The Umatilla, Reed's tribe, had four members buried at the cemetery, though
his tribe resides some 200 miles to the east of Vancouver. Northwest tribes
often traveled over large distances in the summer months.
Though they did not settle in the areas they visited, with sojourning
tribal members returning to the homeland every year, Reed claims that the
Umatilla had gone as far afield as the Willamette Valley in Oregon and
possibly into far Northern California as well; it is not surprising that
they would be among the group at the cemetery.
Burials at the Ft. Vancouver cemetery were conducted mainly between the
1820s and the 1850s. The Catholic Church started keeping records in the
late 1830s after it came to the site. Wilson said church records reveal
that there were over 200 individuals buried at the Ft. Vancouver cemetery.
The findings come at a time when the effects of NAGPRA were finally, though
slowly, beginning to materialize. For years there had been several
controversies at various institutions regarding the repatriation of these
remains. In one of the more celebrated cases the brain of Ishi, a Northern
California Yahi tribal member and the last of the traditional Indians, was
finally repatriated in a moving ceremony in August 2000.
Though Reed said some of these remains and funerary items such as beads and
other material objects are slowly beginning to make their way back to
tribes, the process has been slow. The Umatilla will send representatives
to Washington, D.C., in the next few months to meet with officials from the
Smithsonian to discuss the concrete details of repatriating the tribal
remains held in store at the national facility.