Bill aims to protect tribal grave sites

Nearly three years ago, state construction crews who were working on a road project in Arlington accidentally dug into graves that held the remains of four American Indians, ancestors of Stillaguamish tribal members.

The discovery was one in a series that, over time, has revealed the vast numbers of Indian graves spread throughout the region.

Now, a bill in the Legislature could result in a database of every known site of buried human remains throughout the state. The database would be exempt from public disclosure laws in order to protect the sites from looters and vandals. The bill would also protect property owners and contractors who have followed state guidelines from criminal and civil charges if they accidentally uncover skeletal remains.

Indian tribes wouldn’t be required to add what they know to the state database. Some local tribal leaders have long insisted that the locations of ancient burial grounds is privileged information they shouldn’t be forced to share with state or federal officials, but now some may offer what they know in order to keep those spots safe from invasive development.

“I think this bill is a great start in not only protecting the ancestors of the Indian people, but also ancestors of settlers and anybody else,” Stillaguamish Tribal Chairman Shawn Yanity said.

Under current state law, it is a felony to remove archaeological objects, including Indian remains, from where they were found without a permit. Snohomish County has an agreement that allows local tribes to review construction permit applications for any planned developments that may disturb known burial or archaeological sites.

“This bill will streamline the process,” state Historic Preservation Officer Allyson Brooks said. “Right now you have to go to multiple places, but this would give project proponents just one place to go.”

Hearings on the bill took place in both the state House and the state Senate last week. State Rep. John McCoy, a Tulalip tribal member who is among the bill’s sponsors, said tribes have a right to keep their information to themselves, but noted that the bill would ensure that the database is secured.

The bill has been more than a year in the making, and McCoy said he’s not sure it will pass during the current legislative session.

“Some items will have to wait for the 2010 session,” he said. “This process is a long road, and it’s going to take at least three years to address all the issues.”

McCoy said he’s not sure whether the Tulalip Tribes will submit the information they have about tribal burial sites for inclusion in the database.

Yanity said he hopes the bill will ultimately allow tribal experts to work alongside state and federal experts when new archaeological and burial sites are discovered.

“Our experts aren’t certified by the state or the county, but they know our history,” Yanity said. “They’re the ones who have our stories, our family lineage. They know exactly where we gathered, where we hunted and where our cemeteries are, including family cemeteries. A lot of people don’t know that some tribal families had their own cemeteries.”

It would take one full-time employee a year to create a database of all the state’s historic sites, Brooks said. Her office supports the bill, but the money needed to implement it — estimated at $200,000 — isn’t included in the current state budget.

“If and when the bill passes, the governor can decide whether to support it or just wait another year,” she said.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or

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