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Northwest tribes and Army meet at Fort Vancouver

Questions surround cemetery site

PORTLAND, Ore. - Nary a wooden marker is left to show the way to the
burials - the site where people from at least 36 American Indian tribes, as
well as Hawaiian natives and Anglos, are buried.

Sidewalks and asphalt roads that connect white clapboard Army buildings
built during the early 1900s have obliterated all signs of the cemetery
that lies beneath. Moreover, an Army theater building with a basement
formerly used for firearms practice covers what purportedly is a large mass
grave from an epidemic that swept through the area in the early 1800s. The
structures were built during the World War I era: a time when the powers
that be didn't consider abuses of this nature the affronts that today's
public acknowledges.

Early in the morning, the temperatures were enough to drive several of the
elders back to the car. The rest of the group, though, withstood the cold
and toured the sight. It was a dutiful, uninspired march. The only things
testifying to the cemetery's location were pieces of orange plastic tape
tied to construction stakes fluttering in the breeze coming off the
Columbia River.

Later in the day, just across the Columbia in Portland, some 30 tribal
people and government officials gathered in a meeting room at the
Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) conference, their faces
softened in the glow of a PowerPoint presentation.

Umatilla tribal council member Armand Minthorn stood when he spoke.
"Colonel, your coming here shows us the Army is taking our concerns
seriously and is interested in working with us to protect the cemetery. It
is good that you are here to learn for yourself directly what our issues
are," Minthorn said.

"To the tribes, Indian remains are sacred. No ifs, ands or buts."

Minthorn's attire - a black leather vest and a necklace with a beaded heart
medallion in pinks and blues - differed from the Army official's, but both
men were dressed for the occasion. A good head taller but slighter in
build, Col. Wayne Thomas was decked out in his olive drab dress uniform,
with gold buttons, ribbons, general staff insignia and silver eagles
attesting to his rank and position.

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"I just want to re-emphasize that the Army is very open to having honest
consultation and anxious to comply with Department of Defense policies,"
Thomas said. "We apologize for past problems and now are here to make sure
that tribal interests are protected."

An apology from the Army? The last time anyone in the room checked, the
Army didn't come around saying it was sorry about much of anything. But
there he was, the colonel, his hands folded gently and a soft tone in his
voice: "I am very interested in hearing from the tribes and developing a
comprehensive agreement with which to deal with this issue."

The colonel, didn't get the low hum of approval from the crowd after he
spoke, like Minthorn enjoyed. Still, Thomas stood his ground and was
clear-eyed. "I think this is something we should work on together," he
said, "because together we will achieve a better outcome for all. We don't
need an adversarial relationship."

By adversarial, Thomas referred to the genesis of the meeting. Frustrated
by several years of trying to work with regional Army officials in Seattle,
ATNI representatives - led by Minthorn - finally penned a letter to the
Secretary of the Army last fall. The Army staff realized this issue was too
complex for the local leadership to handle and moved the responsibility to
Washington. From here on out, Thomas's office will work with the tribes to
resolve the situation.

While the tribes have not specified the outcomes they hope to see,
consensus at the meeting underscored the need to abide by the Native
American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Passed in 1990, NAGPRA requires federal agencies and federally-funded
institutions to return human remains and funerary objects to lineal
descendants and culturally affiliated tribes and Native Hawaiian
organizations. The law also provides protections for Native burials on
federal lands, including those at Vancouver Barracks.

The gathering closed with Minthorn emphasizing ATNI's interest in being
kept informed as Thomas's office sorts through the issue and collects
existing records. Data for the cemetery itself are readily available, but
what appears more obscure is the paper trail associated with the mass
burial site.

The story goes that in the 1980s, while the Army was upgrading the basement
of the theater building, it uncovered skeletal remains from the mass grave.
"In the past there have been some excavations by the Army," said Minthorn.
"We need to know if they removed anything."

While no fingers were pointed, there was a tone in the meeting that left at
least some participants wondering if the questions that went unasked
weren't at least as important as the topics aired.