Bill protecting Unangax̂ cemetery in Southeast Alaska passes Legislature, awaits Dunleavy’s signature

Several white crosses in the trees
A recent photo of the Unangax̂ cemetery at Funter Bay. (Juneau-Douglas City Museum)

A bill protecting the graves of Unangax̂ people removed from the Aleutians and forced to live in internment camps in Funter Bay in Southeast Alaska passed the state Legislature on May 17.

It now awaits Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s signature. 

When the Japanese military invaded the Aleutians during World War II, the U.S. government forcibly removed Unangax̂ people from their homes and their region and relocated them to two internment camps in Southeast Alaska. They were held there for two years under inhumane conditions: They weren’t provided with basic necessities including clean water.

About 10% of people died at the Funter Bay internment camps, most of them children and elders.

The bill — House Bill 10 — would protect the graves of the Unangax̂ people who died in Funter Bay, said Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, who sponsored the bill.

“This camp in particular, you know, it’s just a compounding of errors of history,” Hannan said.

The Unangax̂ people interned at Funter Bay were some of the first Unangax̂ people to come into contact with Russians. The Russians enslaved them, forcing them to relocate to the then-uninhabited Pribilof Islands to hunt seals for fur.

A couple hundred years later, it was the U.S. government forcing the Pribilof Unangax̂ to hunt the seals.

“The men placed in internment in Funter Bay (were) still forced to return to the islands in the summer to seal for the government and told, ‘If you don’t do this, we’ll never let you return home,’” Hannan said.

Not a lot of people know about this history, which is why the group Friends of Admiralty Island sought legislative action to protect the graves. They went to their Juneau representative at the time, former Rep. Sam Kito III, to talk about the issue. Kito passed the issue along to Hannan when she was elected. 

Hannan introduced a bill to protect the Funter Bay cemetery in last year’s Legislature. She and her staff, along with Unangax̂ elders and the Friends of Admiralty Island, worked hard to educate Alaska lawmakers about the Funter Bay internment camps and the lasting effects of these camps on Alaska families.

The bill made headway in the Legislature — until the pandemic disrupted the session.

When the bill was reintroduced this year as House Bill 10, things went smooth, with most lawmakers familiar with and supportive of the bill.

Martin Stepetin advocated for the bill during last year’s and this year’s legislative sessions. He is also a member of the Friends of Admiralty Island.

“It went kind of unnaturally fast in the legislature this year, which is really great, you know? We’re super proud of that,” Stepetin said.

Stepetin is Unangax̂ (Aleut) and Tlingit. His grandparents were interned at Funter Bay. To Stepetin, the state recognizing the violent past of the land they own at Funter Bay is a crucial aspect of the bill. 

“What happened to the Aleuts in 1942 by the federal government was a really bad thing,” Stepetin said. “It was a really bad thing that we don’t ever want to happen again. And the only way we can ever protect ourselves from things that happened to us, by us, is to remember it. That’s why we have history class. That’s why we have history.”

To Stepetin and the Friends of Admiralty Island, the work has just started. There are other cemeteries in Southeast Alaska that are not protected, such as the cemetery in Killisnoo on Admiralty Island. Stepetin would like to seek protection of that cemetery next.