Agreement made to preserve Sumas burial site in Abbotsford

Area around Lightning Rock used to bury dead after epidemic

Decades of worry may be coming to an end for Chief Dalton Silver and other members of the Sumas First Nation.

The Sumas announced Monday that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the provincial government that will see the two bodies work together to preserve an important burial site and spiritual place located at the base of Sumas Mountain.

Forty burial mounds have been identified near Lightning Rock, an important Sumas spiritual site located off of Atkinson Road.

Some of the people buried there, according to the Sto:lo, may have been buried following a devastating smallpox epidemic in the 18th century.

The property has been the subject of several proposed developments over more than two decades, and Silver said he was once nearly arrested for blocking bulldozers that had started to clear a road.

“It’s always on our mind,” Silver told The News Tuesday. “I always felt like I was looking over my shoulder to see if something was going on there.”

Other First Nation burial sites in Canada have also been subject to raids by treasure hunters.

And in recent years, the Sto:lo people have intensified efforts to bring home the remains of ancestors taken from the land and displayed or held in museums around the world.

Silver said the MOU, along with a 2014 decision by the city to block a proposed development at the site, has provided more assurance that the site will be protected.

“Today, we are one step closer to ensuring that never happens again. On behalf of the Sumas First Nation, I want to sincerely thank Minister John Rustad and everyone in the ministry for helping us find a truly positive and reconciliatory path forward on this critical issue for the spiritual and cultural well-being of our people,” Silver had been quoted as saying in a press release issued the previous day.

“So rarely have First Nations felt that someone was listening to them, or honouring our spiritual beliefs. Today, I feel that strongly, and an enormous credit is due to them.”

That release says the company that owns the land is “fully supportive of the process that this MOU will initiate and has committed to working with the Nation on finding a conclusion that is respectful to all.”

The owner of the company has said that he didn’t know about the Sumas First Nation claim on the burial site when the property was purchased and that there should be proper designation for such sites.

While no specific decisions have yet been made, Silver said that in addition to protections for the site, he would like to see some sort of marker, including possibly some interpretive signs.

Anything, though, would have to recognize cultural beliefs about such sites.

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