Ryan Conway grew up across the street from the Indian Willard Cemetery in Puyallup, visiting ancestral graves and living in what was then called the “Blue House.”
Today, the Blue House is Blue Sky Landscape Services and Conway, for the past six years, has been the caretaker in that cemetery, which dates back more than 200 years.
“I tell people I treat each grave as if it were your mother’s,” Conway said. “That way anyone who comes to visit a family member can see every grave site has been treated the same, with respect.”
Early last month, Conway was working and found, between the cemetery fence and Valley Avenue, a flurry of red-flagged stakes.
“It was the first I knew that there was work scheduled,” Conway said.
It was also the first the Puyallup Tribe had heard of the city’s plan to trench the road for new sewer and water lines for two new businesses across Valley Avenue.
Why did that horrify tribe elders and others?
“We don’t know the boundaries of the cemetery, because it dates back to the early 1800s, maybe earlier,” tribe archaeologist Brandon Reynon said. “We do know it extends well beyond the fenced area.”
Fearing ancestral remains might be disturbed, the tribe notified the city, pointing out laws and agreements that required Puyallup to notify the tribe before beginning any onsite construction. City planners were stunned.
“The city was aware of the tribal cemetery but we were unaware until two weeks ago of contention that the area of the cemetery included a larger area outside the fence,” said Tom Utterback, the city director of development services.
A stop order was issued for all work in front of the cemetery.
“That cemetery is sacred to us, it’s where our families are,” tribal Police Chief Joe Duenas said. “I remember visiting it as a boy. It’s an active cemetery – I buried my mother, Jody Wright, there last year.”
The first concern of the tribe, then the city and construction company, Trammell Crow, was not to disturb human remains.
“The developer has hired a Seattle archaeologist and he’s working out there,” Utterback said. “We heartily go along with this. We want to know the issues out there.”
Reynon, representing the tribe, will also be part of the cultural assessment of the dig.
One question raised by all this is how did the paved road, in the 1100 block of Valley Avenue, come to cross land that was part of the tribal graveyard? No one involved is certain.
Neither the city nor the tribe was sure whether the fence surrounding the 1.27-acre cemetery or the road came first. The road was built by Pierce County – Utterback believes that was in the 1930s or 1940s – and Puyallup annexed the land in the 1990s.
There are gravestones in the cemetery dating back to the mid-1800s, but that wasn’t when burials first occurred there.
“There are sites without stones, where families couldn’t afford one,” Conway said. “There are stones with entire family’s names on them, covering multiple sites. There’s no way to tell how many are buried within the fences.”
And no certainty on how far beyond those fences grave sites might exist.
It’s no surprise that history never recorded such information. Though the tribe simply calls it Willard Cemetery, it has been known on state and county records as the Firwood Cemetery, the Firwood Indian Cemetery and the Firwood (Willard) Cemetery.
The land is owned by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
When the city was in the permitting process 18 months ago, Utterback said environmental reports were sent to two representatives of the tribe. Tribal attorney Lisa A. Brautigam said that was the critical mistake.
“Two individuals involved with water quality and fisheries did receive the state environmental checklist but they are in individual departments not even located at the Tribal Government Headquarters,” she said. “And they only deal with fisheries and water quality issues.”
Archaeologist Reynon shook his head.
“If we had known about the issue, we would have worked with them on alternatives,” he said. “And we should have known. Now, we’d like to go back to the beginning.”
Utterback does not disagree, but insists there was never an intent to keep the tribe in the dark.
“If we were doing it again, we’d do it differently,” Utterback said. “We didn’t realize we should have sent it to others. We thought it would be shared by those we did send it to.”
For now, work in front of the cemetery has halted, and the city and tribe will have meetings this week to discuss alternatives.
“We’re not obstructionists. This is a matter of respect,” said Tribal Council member Lawrence LaPointe. “These are our ancestors, our families.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 firstname.lastname@example.org