Story and Images By Amy Li
It’s a brilliantly sunny day and just across from Kaasda Heen Circle, Sitka Conservation Society’s Community Conservation Corps members are working hard, filling the otherwise serene forest with sounds of buzzing weed wackers and humming chainsaws. For about a week, the Conservation Corps worked alongside local cemetery restoration expert Bob Sam on maintaining and beautifying the historic Presbyterian Church cemetery. Under the guidance and direction of Sam, they trimmed the understory, cleared out brush, and removed hazard trees.
After SCS received CARES funding for the Conservation Corps, helping Bob Sam with his decades-long effort to maintain and restore the cemeteries in Sitka immediately came to mind for Executive Director Andrew Thoms and SCCC project lead Ben Hughey when deciding what projects the Conservation Corps should work on.
“The Corps’s core mission is to support Sitka’s community assets, and the cemeteries are a very important part of our community,” Thoms said. “We hope to honor the people buried here by doing this work.”
The historic Presbyterian Church cemetery is the resting place for roughly 400 to 500 Alaska Native people, many of whom lived in the Cottage Community adjacent to Sheldon Jackson College. Despite the many important social justice figures buried in the cemetery, Sam believes that “few people in this community” know of its existence. Many key figures from the beginnings of the Native civil rights movement are buried in the cemetery, including Peter Simpson, the famous Alaska Native rights activist. Beyond helping found the Alaska Native Brotherhood and serving as its first Grand President, he also contributed significantly to Alaska Native land claims efforts in the early 20th century. Today, the cemetery is owned by the Alaska Native Brotherhood.
“I don’t know how many Native American places that own their ancestors and their cemeteries,” said Sam. “Sitka is one of those places, where we actually own our ancestors and lineal descendants have ultimate say-so of their ancestors. Powerful. We have a responsibility to take care of this place and make sure it’s not forgotten.”
The Sitka Community Conservation Corps worked diligently to help Sam in his ongoing upkeep of the cemetery. The three acres of lush forest shrouding the cemetery was so overgrown that just 20 years ago, it was impossible to walk through. Over the past two decades, Sam has worked tirelessly to thin the understory, remove standing dead trees, and restore headstones, improving the well-being of the forest and cemetery.
Before & After Clearing Work
“A sign of a healthy community is a clean cemetery,” explained Sam. “If we keep this place clean, it falls on the descendants in a good way. It helps us become better people, more thoughtful of our ancient connections as people that come from this place.”
With over 18 cemeteries like the Presbyterian Church cemetery scattered around Sitka, the work Sam and others have done to conserve and reinvigorate these resting places is crucial for not just the community, but also for those who have come before us and those to follow.
“I’m indigenizing this place, making it blend into nature, to decolonize and make it Tlingit,” said Sam. “It’s become a very beautiful place now.”
The moss-covered logs, bushes dripping with ripe huckleberries, and now-restored headstones concur. The Sitka Conservation Society Community Conservation Corps has helped Bob Sam in making the cemetery a bit more beautiful, for past, present, and future generations to find respite in.
“I’m very grateful that we have a cross section of the community working here,” said Sam of the Conservation Corps members, noting that they are local Sitkans. “It educates the community to respect this place with dignity and honor.”
The Sitka Conservation Society is fielding a Community Conservation Corps to do work to maintain, improve, design, and build community facilities as part of a COVID economic relief program in partnership with the City of Sitka and other community organizations. Projects will include mountain bike trail construction, facilities maintenance, Goddard Hot Springs water system improvements, landscaping, and more. Work will take place throughout the rest of 2020. We are looking for individuals who are unemployed, underemployed, or furloughed because of the pandemic and are eager to work on outdoor projects. Previous experience in trail building, construction, physical labor, landscaping, Alaska-skills and know-how, and any certifications are a plus.
The Corps Leaders organize the Corps, set up the work, oversee the work on the ground, and work along the Corps to get the jobs completed. Experience being on a crew, running a crew, and putting together projects is needed. Certifications for first aid, CPR, wilderness first aid, clean driver’s license, or specialized skills are pluses.
The Corps members are the ones who get the projects done. Corps members should be willing to work hard, be willing to learn, and have experience working outdoors in Alaska. Experience is a plus. Certifications may be necessary (Drivers license, CPR/First Aid, Wilderness First aid, specialized skills, etc.).
- Fill out the application questions (linked here).
- Submit a simple resume and provide the names of 3 personal or professional references.
- Application materials can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or dropped off at Old Harbor Books. For any questions contact Ben Hughey (email@example.com).
About the Community Conservation Corps
As Alaskans, we know that we all need to pull together to make our communities work. As a nation, we need to rise to the challenges we face, and overcome division to make investments that will ensure a prosperous future. This is especially true in the face of the COVID19 pandemic, which has restructured our local and national economy, leaving many Sitkans lacking financial and social stability, at a moment of widespread economic, environmental, and social change.
When the City of Sitka requested proposals for programs that put Sitkans to work developing and maintaining community recreational infrastructure, SCS responded. We have always been inspired by the 1930’s era Civilian Conservation Corps that FDR developed as part of the New Deal. The CCC put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work planting trees and building parks and trails across the country, including the Mt. Edgecumbe trail and shelters at the Halibut Point Recreation Area in Sitka. With our response to the City, we’re envisioning a CCC for the 21st century, addressing the current unemployment crisis while creating lasting benefits for the community.
The City was pleased with the Sitka Conservation Society’s proposal (and SCS was the only entity that put together a project proposal!) and we’ve now established a contract for the program to put Sitkans back to work building and maintaining recreation and visitor industry assets. Through the rest of 2020, SCS will be working closely with many local partners to plan, design, build and improve trails, cabins, and other infrastructure in the Sitka area, while providing skills to Corps members to help them secure future employment.
We are currently recruiting Corps Members and Leaders for our Community Conservation Corps. The positions are open to Sitkans who have been impacted by the COVID crisis and are unemployed, underemployed, or furloughed. We are looking for people with a diversity of skill-sets who are eager to contribute to their community and willing to work outdoors this fall. The work is full-time but there is some flexibility in the timing of the work and scope of employment – applicants do not need to commit to 3 months of full-time work. We anticipate that folks may be able to work on specific projects over shorter time periods, as needs and skills align.