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Congressional Cemetery at 200

WASHINGTON - For 70 years or so in the 19th century, Congressional Cemetery staked its claim as America's first national cemetery. But among Washingtonians who celebrated the cemetery's 200th year on May 19, it is more appreciated as a dog romp, one of the few spacious settings in the District of Columbia where dogs can run free off the leash. Their owners pay fees that are reinvested in upkeep at the cemetery.

But for others, it's not right and never will be. The disrespect nettles. For still others, the offense is more grievous. Ambassador Charles Blackwell of the Chickasaw Nation recently showed a visitor around the cemetery grounds where their tribal ancestors are buried, and coming away they were sore at heart. The only Indian on a board of advisors to the association that administers the cemetery, Blackwell intends to be interred there, following in the footsteps of many previous tribal diplomats. But he's in good health and hopes first to help find the cemetery an attached property that can be dedicated to the dogs, perhaps with an appropriation from Congress.

Though Congress isn't officially connected with Congressional Cemetery, it wouldn't be the first time lawmakers have taken action on behalf of the cemetery. Within months of its establishment, a Connecticut senator became the first national legislator laid to rest in what was then known as Washington Parish Burial Ground. By 1816, in a goodwill gesture, the parish vestry set aside burial sites for members of Congress. All told, through donation and purchase by the government, 924 burial sites were assigned to members of Congress or high officials who died in office, as well as their families. Beginning in the 1830s, with the construction of a receiving vault to hold the remains of congressional members until transport could be arranged to their home states, Washington Parish Burial Ground gradually became known as Congressional Cemetery.

Its popularity rested on the travel conditions of the time. Roads were few and rough, railroads were still a thing of the future, conditioned air and commercial jets of the still more distant future. When a person traveled to Washington and died there alone, burial there was often the course of least resistance if nothing else. It could be weeks or months before notification even got back to the home town or tribe.

For the same reasons, Congressional Cemetery counts many Indians among its 60,000 interments. "I assume that they all came to town in some official - and this is why I'm involved - diplomatic capacity," Blackwell said. "And they died here and they couldn't get them home. ... Certainly they were leaders of their people or they wouldn't have been here."

Pushmataha is a celebrated example. As a war chief of the Choctaw, he fought as an ally of Gen. Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and earned the friendship and respect of the future president. Traveling to Washington on a diplomatic mission to resist further land cessions demanded by settlers, he found Jackson unwilling to back him in resistance, Blackwell relates. But now a senator - and in fact president-elect of the people, until the Electoral College weighed in against him following the disputed 1824 presidential election - Jackson visited the deathbed when Pushmataha came down with diphtheria. The warrior's last wish was that Jackson "fire the big guns over me" in a military salute. Jackson complied by burying him with full military honors, after leading the funeral cortege down current East Capitol Street to Congressional Cemetery.

But dozens of other Indians, including a Winnebago known as Prophet and a supposed Sac and Fox (or Quapaw?) named Quaw-Quaw-Mah-Pe-Quaw, went to their rest anonymously, insofar as can be determined today. As the cemetery continues a restoration process begun in 1976, Blackwell said, "My job is to see that the remains and memory of these people, these tribal people who are there, are treated appropriately."

He hopes to hire a research assistant who can help fill out the stories of their lives and deaths. Inquiries should be directed to The Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E St. S.E., Washington, DC 20003.