Legislature passes bill to preserve World War II-era Unangax̂ cemetery at Funter Bay

Grave markers erected by Friends of Admiralty at the Unangax cemetery in 2017.

Legislation adding a cemetery that holds the graves the Unangax̂ people who died at a World War II-era forced relocation camp in Southeast Alaska to the Funter Bay Marine Park has cleared the Alaska Legislature.  

House Bill 10, sponsored by Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan, seeks to preserve and commemorate the Unangax̂ people who were forced to relocate from their homes in the Pribilof Islands to a camp 1,300 miles in Southeast Alaska. Some 30 to 40 people died at Funter Bay where they were given inadequate housing and supplies by the U.S. government.

Many of the supporters note the inhumane treatment of the people was steeped in racism, noting that prisoners of war were treated much better at a neighboring camp. They given few supplies for the hasty relocation and housed in abandoned buildings from an old mine and cannery.

“If you were to go about 23 miles west northwest of Funter Bay in those days, you would have found the U.S. federal government providing basic health care and adequate food to prisoners of war,” said Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl during the floor debate. “Mostly Germans and some Italians at Excursion Inlet. They were treated vastly better than the Unangax̂ people—Americans—interred at Funter Bay More than 30 of those Americans at Funter Bay died before their internment ended. … The Alaska state Legislature can’t fix the history, we can’t change what was done, but we can protect the final resting place of more than 30 of our fellow Americans at Funter Bay.”

[Read more from KTOO: ‘They’re going to be safe’: Bill would protect Unangax̂ cemetery at Funter Bay]

The legislation would transfer about 250 acres of state land from the state Division of Mining, Land and Water to the Division of Parks and Recreation. It doesn’t include any funding for improvements or memorials to the cemetery as there’s a separate effort underway for those improvements.

The bill had faced some skepticism from House Republicans when it passed earlier in the session, where they argued that it was a sweetheart deal for the neighboring landowners because it may preclude a future mine project in the area (Several mining groups wrote in after the vote, noting there was no known mining opportunities and therefore didn’t oppose the legislation). There was no such opposition mounted from the Senate Republicans during today’s debate and the vote was ultimately unanimous with several Democrats and Republicans signing on as cross sponsors, a sign of support.

Because the Senate made no changes to the legislation, the bill does not need a concurrence vote and will head to Gov. Mike Dunleavy for consideration.

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