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Bill protecting Alaska Native cemetery advances to governor

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) —

A bill that protects the graves of Unangax people in southeast Alaska awaits a signature from Gov. Mike Dunleavy after both chambers of the Alaska Legislature approved the measure.

The Unangax cemetery holds more than 30 graves of people who died at Funter Bay during World War II. They were relocated to two internment camps there from the Aleutian islands by U.S. forces after the Japanese military invaded.

They spent much of the war at the remote spot on the western side of Admiralty Island, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of Juneau, and, more than 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) from their homes in the Aleutian islands.

Many of those who died were young children or elders, KTOO Public Media reported. The camps did not have clean water or basic medical care.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Sara Hannen, a Juneau Democrat, would protect the graves and also add 251 acres (102 hectares) to the cemetery. A message sent to the governor’s office to find if and when the bill might be signed was not immediately returned to The Associated Press on Friday.

Friends of Admiralty Island sought legislation to protect the graves. Group member Martin Stepetin is Unangax and Tlingit. His grandparents were interned at Funter Bay.

He told KTOO that having the state of Alaska recognize the violent past of the land they own at Funter Bay was a crucial aspect of the bill.

“What happened to the Aleuts in 1942 by the federal government was a really bad thing,” he 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.”

He also hopes this is just a start in having other cemeteries in southeast Alaska afforded similar protections, such as one on Killisnoo Island.

The island, located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Funter Bay, was where about 83 people from Atka in the Aleutian Islands were relocated in 1942. They were allowed to return home three years later but 17 people had died on Killisnoo, according to “World War II Aleut Relocation Camps in Southeast Alaska,” by Charles M. Mobley and published by the National Park Service.

The Associated Press