Caretaker helps repatriate remains of Alaska Native children
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Bob Sam lives up to his name.
“My Tlingit name is Shaagunastaa,” Sam said during his Evening at Egan lecture Nov. 16 at the University of Alaska Southeast’s Egan Library. “It doesn’t translate to Bob Sam. It roughly translates to the man with the golden face or the mountain goat who has a human face, but it also translates to the man who showed human beings how to respect the dead.”
The Tlingit storyteller has spent decades taking care of a Russian Orthodox and Alaska Native cemetery in Sitka and collaborating with others to repatriate and reinter the remains of indigenous people.
“That’s the work that I do,” Sam said. “I have lived up to my Tlingit name.”
Sam is engaged in an ongoing endeavor to repatriate the bodies of 14 Alaska Natives who died while at Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania, a boarding school that forced Native children to discard their regalia, cut their hair and abandon their language.
Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the school, was known to use the phrase, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
Sam is working with the Native American Boarding School Coalition and the U.S. Army toward the goal, and during Sam’s introduction UAS Chancellor Rick Caulfield said the remains are expected to come home in 2020.
The former grounds of the boarding school are located at the site of the United States Army War College.
Sam said he knows some things about the 14 students, including their identities, but out of deference to the families and respect for the Army’s process, he did not talk about them at length. Student records for students at the Carlisle school can be viewed online at carlisleindian.dickinson.edu, and cemetery records are also available.
The Army will bear the expense of exhuming, transporting and interring the bodies, according to the NABSC and Sam.
During his roughly two-hour talk and question and answer session, Sam shared stories of bringing indigenous bodies from museums to rest at their homes in Alaska and Japan.
“I became an expert at reinterment and repatriation of human remains,” Sam said. “I noticed and found out there were so many bodies of American Indians and Alaska Natives at universities and museums across the country. I brought my own family home. Remains in New York, Washington, D.C. and Seattle.”
In other cases, Sam’s expertise was sought out, or he became involved in efforts because of personal relationships.
His work in Japan stemmed from a friendship with the late Japanese wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino. The two would often camp together, and Sam said Hoshino was like a brother to him.
Sam said because of Hoshino and his photographs, Sam carried clout in Japan.
“He made me an overnight sensation in Japan,” Sam said. “He was my best friend. I had no idea how famous he was.”
Additionally, Sam said his cemetery caretaking had cultural resonance.
“In Japan, they have a deep respect for people who work in that,” Sam said.
Sam spoke about his formative years and early adulthood that instilled in him the importance of treating remains respectfully.
When he was a young boy in Sitka, Sam would help his grandmother clean cemetery plots at the Russian Orthodox and Alaska Native Cemetery. One day, he could tell she was distraught by the overall condition of the cemetery.
Sam said he told his grandmother he would fix the cemetery.
“The orthodox cemetery is a very popular place,” Sam said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see. I accomplished my promise to my grandmother. I am very, very happy about that.”
But he did not start working toward that goal immediately.
Sam said as a young man he left his village for education and “a modern life” and was living in Anchorage, working as an electrician and making good money.
Memories of his boyhood home persisted.
“Always, I thought about those places,” Sam said. “I came back to Sitka.”
Sam saw new construction taking place near the site of what he knew to be a cemetery. He went to the work site to see what was happening and discovered that work was going on at the actual site of the cemetery.
“They were pulling coffins out of the ground with a backhoe,” Sam said. “They completely destroyed a cemetery. I’ve never forgotten.”
During the desecration, Sam said human remains spilled from the broken coffins. Over the course of a year, Sam collected the remains in boxes and took them to a church. Then, over three years, he reburied the remains at the orthodox cemetery.
“During that time, I stopped speaking,” Sam said. “I didn’t like modern people. I blamed you for what you did to my ancestors.”
Eventually, Sam broke from his silence when a clan brother of Sam’s father heard of Sam’s work. The elder praised the project but encouraged Sam to exercise forgiveness and shared a forgiveness prayer with Sam.
“It took a long, long time,” Sam said. “I became a better person. I realized if I forgive, you can set aside your guilt, and we can be the people we are intended to be. Forgiveness was key, and seeing how human we all are was key.”
Keeping at it
For decades, Sam has labored as the cemetery’s caretaker. He removed moss from headstones, cut back the limbs of trees and labored to make it a serene and pristine resting place.
In 2015, young vandals knocked over headstones three times in a matter of weeks and Sam was at first discouraged.
However, he said law enforcement and community members helped him fix what was done and that restored his faith in the community. Now, the cemetery is under surveillance, and Sam said it remains beautiful.
Douglas Gray, who grew up in Sitka and shares a relative with Sam, thanked him for the continued efforts that have remade the cemetery that Gray recalls from boyhood as dark and dreary.
“It touches my heart,” Gray said. “What you’ve done for my family has been amazing.”
Sam said respect for cemeteries is something he has observed spreading throughout Southeast Alaska, which makes him happy.
He said Alaska Natives have an opportunity to show reverence to their deceased ancestors that many other indigenous people do not have.
Sam said Tlingit culture is enjoying a renaissance on the same lands on which it was born.
“We’re one of the very few tribes that still have our ancestors with us,” Sam said.