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Ancestral remains reburied at IPI hotel-casino grounds

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THE over 700 ancestral remains that were found on the Imperial Pacific International Resort & Casino construction site were reburied at the site on Friday morning.

Several community members gathered at casino-hotel property to take part in and witness the traditional reburial of the residents of Anaguan village, which is now Garapan.

To pay tribute to these ancestral Chamorro remains, Commonwealth flags were flown at half-mast by order of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres.

“Our indigenous cultures dictate that the highest respect, honor, and reverence be given to our elders,” he said. “Our community has come together to give our indigenous ancestors, who were our first elders, the highest respect, honor, and reverence on the day they will finally be laid to peaceful rest with the promise that [they] will not be unearthed again.”

Torres said after years of “diligent planning, careful historical preservation, and respectful cultural reverence led by the CNMI Historic Preservation Office, under the CNMI Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, the nearly 700 ancestral remains have been reinterred at Anaguan, marking what will become the largest indigenous memorial in the CNMI.”

DCCA acting Secretary Robert Hunter said it has been  the department policy that “we were not going to let ancestral remains continue sitting for years and years and years before they’re reburied. We owe them a respectful burial.”

He added, “We still need to come up with a plan for all of the ancestral remains that are in our care that have been turned over…[and] are from undisclosed locations.”

Hunter said discussions have already begun on a possible central memorial site where these ancestral remains could be reinterred.

In 2017, then-Rep. Alice S. Igitol introduced House Local Bill 20-37 with the intent of establishing and mandating the use of a centralized reburial location for the treatment of human remains.

“We are going to keep doing this until all of the ancestral remains are reinterred. It’s our responsibility,” said Hunter, referring to the reinterment ceremony.

“All along our coastline, from the northernmost village to the southernmost village, our ancestral remains were found there.”

Two traditional chanters, right, accompany pallbearers carrying the ancestral remains of Anaguan villagers during the reinterment ceremony on Friday at the IPI hotel-casino in Garapan. Photo by K-Andrea Evarose S. Limol

He said CNMI law provides for the exhumation and reinterment of human remains at or as close to the development site as possible, adding that this is a discussion for the community to have regarding any possible amendments to the law.

“Had [a stricter] policy been in place, nothing — not roads, not water lines, not sewage, not utilities, not hotels, stores, houses, residences — they just wouldn’t be built because at every single building lot, whether it’s residential or commercial or community use, there are ancestral remains,” he emphasized.

Hunter said ancient Chamorros did not set aside cemeteries, but instead, buried their loved ones by their residences.

“We had a public hearing a little over 15 years ago to determine our human remains policy, and the community overwhelmingly did not want to see any kind of development or building or construction or anything like that stopped because we find these things, but they did want ancestral remains reinterred at or as close to the sites as possible,” he said.

Historic Preservation Officer Rita Chong, for her part, thanked the community and heads of government and non-government departments, agencies, and organizations for their overwhelming support.

“We put out a call for help, and it just kind of snowballed, and we’re very happy about that. We’re very appreciative of the support,” she said, noting that HPO did not have the resources to handle the reburial of over 700 remains on its own.

“The people who showed up today are not just Chamorros. They’re representative of the diverse population that we presently have.”

The preparation of the remains took HPO about three weeks, Chong said, to sort, clean, and place into cloth bags and woven baskets.

“We had already designed a burial template that is culturally sensitive to these sets of remains of our ancestors. We didn’t want to do a modern burial. We wanted to do research and find out what their burial rituals were, so as much as we could, that’s what you saw today,” she explained, highlighting the kulu or conch-blowing, traditional funeral chanting, and sakman-sailing that were a part of the burial ritual.

IPI CEO Donald Browne, for his part, said, “We’ve worked with HPO for quite some time now in actually coordinating this event since the first dig we actually had, so it’s a very proud moment for us [and] for the people of the CNMI to reinter the remains of the ancestors.”

He added, “It seems that a lot of people are very emotional, and HPO did a great job with the presentation, and I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

Browne said once HPO finalizes what the monument for the burial site will look like, construction will begin. For now, the grave has been sealed with concrete pads and reinforced for security purposes.

He added that the public will be able to visit the burial site.

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