Thursday, April 15, 2004, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
By Emily Heffter
The Seattle Times
LUMMI NATION - Paul Johnnie spends every day sorting the remains of his
tribe with a spade. He wears a solemn expression and two orange streaks of
paint on each cheek, a traditional mark of protection.
He and 10 other men are searching through a pile of dirt one bucketful at a
time, looking for remains of graves disturbed five years ago in an attempt
to expand a wastewater-treatment plant. The search for bones, pieces of
pottery and tools continues even as this week the Lummi Nation settled its
lawsuit with Golder Associates, an Atlanta-based firm, for $4.25 million.
The city of Blaine hired a Golder Associates archaeology consultant in 1999
to oversee construction at the Semiahmoo Spit, a former Lummi village, but
workers dug through human remains and Lummi artifacts, hauling 400
truckloads to three acres of nearby private property for use as fill and
leaving several huge piles at the spit.
The archaeologist even loaded remains into the back of his pickup and drove
to Denver, allegedly without notifying the tribe.
The settlement legitimized the company's apology and ensured the tribe would
be able to afford to rebury its dead, said Tribal Chairman Darrell Hillaire.
It also brought some relief to a people still grieving the displacement of
more than 100 members of their families.
"There's this collective release of tension, I guess, that I sense,"
The settlement includes $3.5 million to the tribe itself, plus $750,000 to
be divided among 1,236 tribal members whose ancestors were buried at
Semiahmoo. Those tribal members can keep the money or donate their $606
portion to a park commemorating the tribal village or the reburial effort.
Steve Thompson, the president of Golder Associates, said he couldn't comment
beyond a joint statement to the media yesterday. That statement said neither
the Lummi nor Golder admits liability, but both parties "regret what
happened during construction."
The archaeologist who drove to Denver with the tribe's ancestral remains was
put on leave, then resigned, Thompson said.
The litigation may be over this week, but tribal leaders say they have two
to four years of work left. In July, they plan to rebury what they've
unearthed so far next to the existing sewage plant.
Since halting construction in 1999, Blaine city officials have abandoned
plans for an expanded sewage-treatment plant at Semiahmoo Spit, a pointy
strip of sand northwest of Blaine and about 25 miles from the Lummi
HARLEY SOLTES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Lummi tribal members, including Levi Aleck Jr., wear paint on
their faces, a traditional mark of protection, as they sort remains.
Steve Banham, the city's public-works director, said the city will probably
close the Semiahmoo plant altogether once officials figure out where to
build a new plant.
Tribal leaders say planning a Heritage Park at the site has eased their
"We have to look at an end product I think for Lummi to actually make it
through this whole thing," Willie Jones, the tribe's vice chairman, said
yesterday. The smell of sewage and the whir of the treatment plant drifted
through the air as he looked at the waterfront park's proposed location.
"I'm excited now because I can see the end, I can actually start to see the
end," he said. "I can feel a closure. We can move on."
Work of sorting remains
Johnnie, 41, learned only a few years ago that his ancestors were
gravediggers for the Lummi, a family history that qualified him for the task
of sorting remains. He quit his job in Portland and moved to his tribe's
reservation near Bellingham.
"I just knew that I had to come back here and complete it - finish what we
started here," he said.
The work crew begins each day just after daylight with a ceremony to prepare
their minds for the work. They fast until their workday ends around 3 p.m.
Two of the men use shovels and picks to fill 5-gallon buckets with dirt and
The others dump the buckets into screens that hang a few feet off the
ground. They shake and sift, retrieving small pieces of glass, tools made of
rock and sometimes pieces of bone, which they sort in paper sacks stored in
a small plywood enclosure. Out of respect, there is no laughter or chatter.
"The work is like going to a funeral every day," said Sharon Kinley, a Lummi
anthropologist whose husband leads the reburial crew.
Although the work is emotionally grueling, Johnnie says he feels a sense of
purpose and significance. And the experience has made him value his culture
and his family more. As he runs his fingers through the dirt, he thinks of
those who lived before him and the tools they made, the work they did.
"It's pretty well amazing how they did it all by hand," he said.
And now he's doing it all by hand, one bucket at a time.