Lummi asks to be included in county permit process

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SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. - Lummi Nation leaders asked the County Commission here to consult them about proposed development to avoid disturbing culturally significant sites on the islands.

Lummi leaders said they want to avoid a repeat of Semiahmoo Spit in neighboring Whatcom County, where an ancient burial site was desecrated during construction of a wastewater treatment plant.

"It's something we don't ever want to happen again," said Willie Jones, former Lummi chairman whose ancestors are buried at Semiahmoo. "Gravesites were desecrated and remains were taken from the gravesites and flattened by a bulldozer ? we have had to go as far as Denver for the remains."

The county is identifying sites where barge landings can be placed on the ferry dependent islands. San Juan Island was the traditional fishing, hunting, trading and gathering place for the Lummi, Saanich, Samish, Semiahmoo, Songhees and Sooke. The Lummi Nation led efforts to protect a Lummi cemetery on San Juan Island and artifact-rich Madrona Point on Orcas Island.

"It is important to talk people-to-people to understand who we are and where we have come from," Lummi Chairman Darrell Hillaire said. "We can visualize these discussions 150 years ago between my ancestors and yours. As we began to leave the island we left here certain rights and responsibilities, including cultural resources as well.

"We recognize your responsibility to your people. Today the issue is a barge project, tomorrow it may be something else. There is a real history and we are part of that history. That is why we are here."

County Planning Director Laura Arnold said the Samish Indian Nation in nearby Anacortes provided her office with a map showing Samish middens, suspected middens and burial grounds on the San Juan Islands. Some proposed barge-landing sites are located near these cultural sites.

Arnold said she's invited the Samish Nation to participate in the planning process.

County Commissioner Darcie Nielsen remembered her father took her as a child to visit Pearl Little, a Lummi Indian who hosted visiting tribes on waterfront land that had been in her family for generations. Nielsen said her parents instilled in her a respect for burial grounds.

She welcomed cooperation between the county and Lummi, saying resources would best be protected that way.

However, County Commissioner John Evans said some barge sites have been used for decades, some for generations. He equated consulting Lummi with adding another layer of bureaucracy to the planning process.

If the county and Lummi worked together on planning, what would be done that the state doesn't already require, Evans asked.

Isaac Blum, who is working on the Semiahmoo recovery project, responded: "In protecting cultural resources there are steps that need to be taken. The tribe can help facilitate and guide the county through the maze of regulations to preserve the integrity of the site that is now present."

If Lummi Nation is involved during the pre-permit process, issues related to cultural resources can be solved beforehand. If Lummi is notified in the post-permit stage, the wheels of development are already turning and the tribe is put in the position of being obstructionist "when it really is the first time the tribe has had a chance to speak."

Hillaire agreed. "Tribes have been forced historically to react to situations. The tribe wants to step forward and interact with governments in the pre-planning stages of building. We have three offices that deal with these issues."

Jones used the desecration at Semiahmoo as an example again. "The relationship with the construction company was terrible, our thoughts were terrible, as probably was theirs. Lummi (later) took the initiative to provide leadership, and as a result we have seen that if we are on the front end it can be a lot different than it was."

The County Commission presented Hillaire with a jacket and pins to other members of the Lummi delegation. Hillaire invited county officials to Semiahmoo on Aug. 26 for an honoring pole ceremony. Master Carver Jewell James carved the pole to honor the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. The plane crashed in Shanksville, Pa., after passengers diverted it from the terrorists' target, the White House.

A spiritual connection

Upon arriving in the County Commission chambers, Hillaire and Jones said they wanted to meet with the commission not as government-to-government, but as people-to-people. Both talked of how it felt to be on an island where their ancestors fished, hunted, traded and met for millennia. They arrived on the island by private boat.

"This is a special morning. This morning felt like coming home," Hillaire said.

Jones echoed that sentiment. "There was a strong feeling of connection coming on the boat today ? This is our homeland. We have spiritual and active roots here."

Molly Neely-Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact her at mollyn@rockisland.com.