Standing among the stillness, the air calm and quiet between the trees and the graves, it’s easy to see the work that’s been done over the last year to bring order and tidiness back into the Lawson Creek cemetery.
Volunteers, including a contingent from the Juneau Montessori School, are working to clear the roadside visibility of the cemetery, which state or local organization have not claimed, said Jamiann Hasselquist, one of the organizers.
“No one has taken responsibility and it’s in high neglect,” Hasselquist said in an interview. “The main focus is to get the salmonberry bushes from here to the retaining wall out.”
The land, located against Glacier Highway, is listed in the Juneau’s parcel database as belonging partly to the Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau and partially to the City and Borough of Juneau.
“I was there for four days and was able to clear a lot of brush. It was pretty impressive what everybody did in the last year. It’s a lot of work,” said Bob Sam, who has worked to restore Alaska Native cemeteries across the Southeast for years. “That’s what we’re doing in Sitka as well.”
When the project began in earnest last year, Hasselquist said, there was an abandoned vehicle surrounded by trash and evidence of drug use taking up part of the grounds. Now, that’s been removed by the city, and they can look at the next steps including clearing excess undergrowth, headstone restoration and general beautification.
“We’ve been looking at headstone restoration and planting flowers, that kind of thing,” Sam said. “We’ll continue to make it look better, more clearing brush. There’s a lot of headstones that need to be worked on.”
Dozens of volunteers, including several children, came out to help clear undergrowth, dispose of old trash, and get rid of deadwood. A number of families from the Montessori School came as part of the school’s push to promote healing and improvement from its past as a Bureau of Indian Affairs school, said executive director Laura Talpey.
“I think we have a special responsibility to be part of the effort,” Talpey said as she helped clear underbrush. “I would really like to see a strong partnership with JMS and this cemetery restoration.”
The Montessori school, which has partnered with community organizers like Hasselquist before for events like Orange Shirt Day, a holiday started in Canada recognizing the ghastly legacy of the residential school systems for North America’s Indigenous people, is now working to promote healing by encouraging parents and children to assist the cemetery restoration, Talpey said. Ati Nasiah of Haa Tóoch Lichéesh is also involved in the restoration efforts, as part of the coalition’s efforts to better the community.
“It’s extensive — shocking, really. I think maybe only a small minority of our community knows this is here,” Talpey said. “We have a lot of really engaged and knowledge parents who want to be involved.”
The cemetery restoration also gives an opportunity to teach the children about the history of the people whose lands they live on, Talpey said. It will also hopefully start a fire in them to carry on the effort, Hasselquist said.
“All these kids here, this is planting a seed,” Hasselquist said. “I’m really counting on the younger generations to do this work.”
As more become involved in the effort, Sam said, it’s looking better for the long-neglected graves.
“Juneau’s cemeteries are really looking good. It’s the best they’ve ever looked,” Sam said. “They’ve got a good future.”
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.