The 2003 discovery of two sets of human remains brought construction of a housing subdivision on the Umatilla Indian Reservation to a sudden halt.
Tribal members wrestled with the implications. Building so close to a burial site could compromise tribal beliefs, some said, while others held that the Tribe could continue construction while honoring the remains by creating a buffer zone around the graves. In 2004, tribal members voted 217 to 181 to stop development at the site entirely. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation repaid more than $1 million in federal grants it lost by abandoning the 32-lot project.
This month, however, 54 percent of tribal members voted in the Nov. 19 election to revive development. The Board of Trustees placed the referendum on the ballot to see if voters were interested in considering housing at the site again.
The Wyit View construction site is a grassy bench that sits between the Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center and the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute. Though overgrown, the site shows signs of extensive development. Yellow fire hydrants and storm drains poke out of the grass. Water and sewer systems are complete, along with a road base.
CTUIR Deputy Executive Director Debra Croswell said the affirmative vote last week does not necessarily mean housing will be developed there. Any development at Wyit View must still be approved by the Tribe’s Board of Trustees, which won’t meet until sometime after the Dec. 4 swearing-in of new board members and newly elected chairman Gary Burke. The project would also need a funding source.
Croswell said the reservation continues to face a massive housing crunch, especially for middle-class families. While in the 1970s and 1980s the Tribe focused on supplying low-income homes, now the focus has shifted to medium-income housing.
“We now have a pretty healthy economy,” Croswell said. “Most people are employed. We have a huge need for moderate income housing.”
Croswell said many tribal members live in Pendleton or other surrounding communities, though they would prefer to live on reservation land. Completion of the Wyit View subdivision would ease the shortage.
“Many people want to move home to the reservation,” she said.
Restarting construction is not a matter of housing need trumping tradition, she said. The Tribe has simply found a way to satisfy both. She said the development will likely downsize to 15 or 20 home sites instead of the original 32 in order to allow room around the burial grounds.
At the west end of the site, a memorial honors the two sets of remains, believed to be a middle-age Native American man and woman who died more than 200 years ago. Sitting near the reburied remains is a boulder bearing words of remembrance.
“For as long as we remain upon this temporal world / Our footsteps cannot fade away / We can never forget our ancestors.
From the uncounted days of the past and continuing on into the future / Our sacred blood sanctifies our Mother Earth / As did these two ancestors.”
Hopefully, the two will be the only remains found there.
A literature and oral history review before initial construction began in 2001 suggested the possibility of burial grounds on the site. A radar survey, however, found no remains. The Tribe’s Cultural Resources Protection Program recommended ongoing monitoring.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.