Bill tries to protect burial grounds amid paradox of circumstances

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OLYMPIA — If the location of historical Native American burial grounds is known, those sites are vulnerable to looting. But if the sites are kept secret, they're vulnerable to damage by unwitting developers building over them.

A bill attempting to address that paradox was heard Tuesday before the House committee in charge of tribal affairs and community development. HB 2274 would exempt archaeological information on cultural places from public records requests.

Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self (D-Everett), a bill sponsor, called the bill a cost-saving measure that would give tribes assurance their information won't be misused if they share it with local governments and building permit seekers.

"We want to give the information to the right people, and not to the people who would use it as a treasure map," Dr. Allyson Brooks said, speaking in favor of the bill on behalf of the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.

Brooks said "a safe place" is needed for tribes and local government to share information so that developers can know where burial sites may be before damaging them.

Testifying for the bill, Ruth Jim of the Confederated Tribes of Yakama said Native Americans had roamed all over the state, not always documenting where graves were located.

"Most of our knowledge is handed down verbally and you keep it in your heart," Jim said.

She gave an example of a young woman from Utah who shared information with a tribe gathering about a burial site, which was later desecrated after a recording of the gathering was posted online.

A spokesperson for the Association of Washington Cities said cities were "caught between a rock and a hard place" by assuring tribes their information would be safe, while at the same time being subject to public record requests. He said cities are trying to create databases of possible burial sites and streamline permit processing.

Some committee members expressed confusion about the bill's intent.

"We're trying to increase transparency, not decrease it," said Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, suggesting that the bill go before the Sunshine Committee. Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers did not testify for or against the bill, but said it should be drafted more specifically.

"It says 'any information' and it says 'any agency' without qualification," Thompson said. "We're talking about schools and museums too when you say any agency."

"You need to tie it to that database if that's what you're trying to protect," he said.

Dawn Vyvyan of the Yakama Nation said the bill is needed.

"Currently, the only way that everything's protected is if a plow comes in and destroys it," she said.

"There's a huge black market out there and it's worldwide," she said. Grant County PUD supports the bill as it's currently written.

"Experience really shows that if those culturally sensitive sites are published, they run a danger of being disturbed," Tom Stredwick said, a spokesperson for Grant PUD.

He said it was very important to them to protect the many sites along the Columbia River.