Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed a bill into law protecting the Unangax̂ cemetery in Funter Bay on Tuesday at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.
Martin Stepetin has been advocating to protect the Funter Bay cemetery since 2014.
“We’ve seen so many times, all throughout our country, where our sacred grounds have been desecrated and disrespected and not cared for,” Stepetin said. “And that’s what this bill does. It protects it from happening, you know?”
During World War II, the U.S. government forced Unangax̂ people to live in an internment camp in Funter Bay on Admiralty Island. Between 30 and 40 people died and were buried in a cemetery there.
The bill signed Tuesday adds the cemetery to the Funter Bay Marine Park. As part of the state park, cemetery land cannot be sold or developed, ensuring protection for grave sites.
In addition to lawmakers and others in Juneau, leaders from the Aleut Corporation and TDX Corporation, the village corporation of St. Paul, flew to the capital for the signing event.
For Constance Bergo, vice president of TDX Corporation, the feeling of the bill being signed was indescribable, in a good way. But it was also bittersweet.
“It’s sad because it took … The last time, I guess, the Elders that came down — there was four, five of them. They’re no longer with us. So it’s sad but it’s healing at the same time,” Bergo said.
To Tara Bourdukofsky, director of Aleut Corporation, the bill is educational for everyone.
“Probably a lot of people, even my own fellow Unangax̂, much in the way that many still don’t understand what happened in World War II, that the bill is probably even a little foreign to them and what it means because people are still learning about it. Even my own people,” Bourdukofsky said.
Even though the bill is now law, Bourdukofsky thinks it will require continual education for people to understand the effects of the World War II internment on the Unangax̂ people to this day.