Alaska lawmakers are considering expanding a state park to include historic graves of Alaska Natives who were among those who died in World War II internment camps.
After the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, Alaska in 1942, U.S. authorities forcibly evacuated more than 800 Unangax people from nine villages in the remote western islands ahead of the Japanese advance.
University of Alaska Southeast anthropology professor Daniel Monteith told lawmakers that 290 islanders from St. Paul and 190 islanders from St. George were relocated to Southeast Alaska and interned in a makeshift camp on Admiralty Island.
Some 32 marked graves remain near the shores of Funter Bay which descendants continue to visit.
“I think it’s very important in terms of the state of Alaska protecting the Unangax historic cemetery site,” Monteith told lawmakers.
More than a thousand miles away from the islanders’ ancestral home in the Pribilofs in the Bering Sea, the villagers had to make due with few provisions and little heat in a shuttered salmon cannery on Funter Bay.
Martin Stepetin told the House Resources Committee that all four of his grandparents spent the war at Funter Bay in miserable conditions.
“Even my grandma used to say, late into her late 90s, used to say things like, ‘I hope it never happens again,’” Stepetin said.
“The value of protecting the social and historical significance of this land will cement the history for good and we will never have to repeat this history again,” Stepetin said.
Bill sponsor Rep. Sara Hannan said the cemetery is already on state-owned land managed by the Department of Natural Resources.
But the Juneau Democrat said she wanted to ensure it would remain open to the public by adding it and surrounding lands to the nearby Funter Bay Marine Park.
“The descendants of the families who are buried there had some real anxiety about whether they would always have access to be able to visit the graves of their family,” Hannan told CoastAlaska.
The House passed the bill 29-4. It now moves to the Alaska Senate. But it’s unlikely to be considered before next year’s legislative session.