Tribe offers to drop Oak Harbor claim for $3.9 million, old shop deed

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community is offering to settle a $9 million complaint against the City of Oak Harbor for desecration of an Indian burial ground beneath Pioneer Way.

City officials aren’t jumping for joy over the proposal.

The tribal community is demanding the city turn over the old city shop property to the tribe after converting it into a cemetery; implement a city-wide cultural resources management plan; and pay the tribe $3.9 million.

“The citizens of Oak Harbor have already ponied up $4 million for reclamation and are looking at another one to two million for reburial,” Mayor Scott Dudley said.

“I can’t ask them to pay another $4 million.”

Tribe attorney Emily Haley sent the letter offering “compromise claims” to the city earlier this month. The Whidbey News-Times obtained a copy of the proposal through a public records request.

The Swinomish surprised city officials in April by filing a complaint for damages for $9 million. The claim accuses city officials of digging up the known site of a burial ground during the 2011 Pioneer Way street project.

At that time, Dudley said he was disheartened that the tribe filed the claim. He said there was a unwritten agreement between the city and tribe that they wouldn’t sue as long as the city took all the actions the tribe felt were necessary.

The city did everything the tribe asked, Dudley said.

Dudley said he expects a lawsuit will be filed by the tribe next month.

City engineers project that the city will spend $4 million in the ongoing effort to recover the remains and cultural artifacts.

Dudley said the city hired the archaeological firm that the tribe wanted. The city hired tribal members for security, spiritual oversight, handling and other work.

The letter from the tribe asks for $3.9 million “to compensate for the great stress, anguish, and spiritual and emotional distress that the city’s actions have caused the Tribe and its members to suffer.”

The tribal community is also asking for the title to the old city shop property at the end of City Beach Street. The letter states that the city shall bear all costs related to reburial of the ancestral remains, which may include building a memorial.

Haley wrote that city officials should also acknowledge publicly that the project desecrated “a significant Lower Skagit and Swinomish village site and burial ground”; the desecration caused serious emotional and economic harm to the tribal people; the tribe acted to protect its ancestors; and the city has taken responsibility for its actions.

One of  many concerns he has with the offer is the Swinomish isn’t the only tribe claiming Oak Harbor as ancestral ground, Dudley said. He said the city worked with six tribes at one point.

“If there’s a settlement, we think that it should be fair to all the tribes that claim these remains as their ancestors,” he said.

The mayor said neither the city nor its insurance pool has responded to the Swinomish’s claim yet.

The insurance may not cover the damages if city officials were found to have acted “knowingly or willfully” in their negligence, he said.

Dudley argues that the digging up and removing of human remains was a bad mistake, but wasn’t done on purpose.

The road project occurred under the previous mayor.

The state archeologist warned the city beforehand about an archeological site in the proximity of the project, but officials didn’t follow the advice.


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