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  6.  | Governor Dunleavy Signs Historic Agreement Returning Sacred Burial Grounds to Gulkana Village

Governor Dunleavy Signs Historic Agreement Returning Sacred Burial Grounds to Gulkana Village

Oct 21, 2020 | Alaska Native, Construction, Government, News

Gulkana Village Council members with Governor Mike Dunleavy at a parking lot groundbreaking in Gulkana.

Gulkana Village Council

After almost fifty years, the Gulkana Village Council has reached a resolution with the State of Alaska on the return of their former village lands and traditional burial grounds. Representatives from Gulkana Village Council and Ahtna, Incorporated joined Governor Mike Dunleavy in Gulkana on October 13 for a deed signing and parking lot groundbreaking ceremony.

“Today’s ceremony is a culmination of a lot of work that never should have happened, because this was always your land. I’m sorry it took so long. I want to thank previous administrations and others that worked on this. In a world that seems to be becoming more divided, this is an example of where we came together to solve problems,” said Governor Dunleavy.

The lands were developed nearly eighty years ago without permission of the Ahtna people. In 1943, the Alaska Road Commission bisected what was a thriving village on the Gulkana River in order to realign the highway and build a new bridge which came within feet of the village cemetery. Land that the Ahtna people had occupied for centuries was uninhabitable, and families had no choice but to pick up the belongings they could carry and resettle across the Gulkana River.

In 1971, the Bureau of Indian Affairs federal trustee deeded Gulkana’s former village lands to the State of Alaska, once again without the village’s permission. For almost fifty years, Gulkana has worked with each administration in an effort to have the land that was taken returned to the village. Over many decades, people have trespassed through the village’s sacred burial grounds to gain access to the river, thereby desecrating grave sites.

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“This has been an emotional journey. You and those who came with you are a part of our history now. You’re helping us to close a very painful chapter in the lives of the families that are in this room,” said Ahtna, Incorporated President and Gulkana Tribal member Michelle Anderson when addressing the Governor.

The historic agreement returns the traditional gravesite and Lot 8 to Gulkana Village, vacates the Old Richardson Highway easement, and provides an easement at the boat launch site as well as river access and parking within the State right of way. Further, the Memorandum of Understanding  that was signed on June 10, 2020 in Anchorage commits the State of Alaska to work with Gulkana Village to protect the gravesite and provide appropriate signage at the public boat launch and parking areas.

From left to right: Eileen Ewan, Gulkana Village Council president; Governor Mike Dunleavy; Michelle Anderson, Ahtna president; and Ken Johns, Ahtna chairman.

Gulkana Village Council

“We would like to thank Governor Dunleavy for traveling to the village to be with us today to take care of this long overdue land issue. We have been waiting for this day for the last forty-plus years. Today we are thankful to be signing this deed to get the land back. Some of the Elders and loved ones that pushed us to get this land back are no longer here with us today. We knew it was their drive that kept us going, to keep fighting to get back what was rightfully ours to begin with,” said Eileen L. Ewan, Gulkana Village Council President.

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On January 16, a fire destroyed the water plant and washeteria in the southwest Alaska village of Tuluksak. For the village of about 350 people, it was a devastating blow. The water plant was the only source of drinking water in the village, in which the primarily Yup’ik residents lack indoor plumbing and rely on honey buckets, not uncommon in the flat, swampy region.

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