Many Alaska Native gravesites in Juneau are overgrown and all but forgotten. Tlingit storyteller and cemetery caretaker Bob Sam hopes to change that. He led a tour through Juneau’s cemeteries during the Sharing Our Knowledge conference in September to raise awareness and respect for the graves and the ancestors buried in them.
A couple dozen people fill the seats of a small tour bus. It’s standing room only and at the front is Bob Sam. He introduces himself as “just a simple caretaker.”
Sam lives in Sitka. He’s been cleaning and protecting gravesites there for over 30 years, and he picks up the work in Juneau when he’s in town.
In particular, he’s been visiting Evergreen Cemetery for years, across the street from Harborview Elementary School. His grandfather is buried there, as well as founders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Tlingit civil rights advocate, Elizabeth Peratrovich.
But many headstones lay toppled over. Some are overgrown. For years, Sam says, the cemetery was a popular place for high school students to hang out and party. He’d find trash and empty bottles strewn about.
“I found needles here. It was very sad,” he said. “So I cleared all the brush. And I opened up the whole place. And something beautiful happened.”
Sam says when people noticed the cemetery was being cared for, they stopped leaving garbage around the graves. He says he even saw high school students picking up trash.
Sam is hoping a good clean-up can transform another cemetery in Juneau. It’s on Douglas Island, hidden in plain sight right off the Douglas Highway and Lawson Creek Road. There’s an area with Alaska Native graves, another with Masons, a Russian Orthodox section and an area known as the Asian cemetery.
Cleaning it up will be a big undertaking. Apart from a neatly mowed section maintained by a Catholic church, most of the cemetery doesn’t look like a cemetery at all. It’s a steep hillside, covered in brush on one side, trees on another.
When the tour group arrives, one man walks off on his own, stepping high through the tall plants to a spot he seems to know well.
His name is Kahdushan Michael Dunlap, and he stands by the grave that belongs to his great-grandfather, Jack Marshal.
Dunlap pulls out brush by the fistful until the headstone is clear.
“This is sacred ground for me,” he said.
Dunlap is good friends with Sam. He helped him clean up the cemetery years ago, although much of the brush has grown back since then.
For Sam, that’s a call to action.
“Maybe it’s our responsibility. Maybe we’re the ones that should take care of this place,” said Sam.
Sam is hoping to begin the work again — soon.