Rendering of the proposed Yurok Tribe's Native veteran cemetery.

Yurok Tribe Plans Cemetery for Native Veterans

Michelle Tirado
4/14/11

Around this time next year, American Indian veterans living in two rural northern California counties could have a final resting place exclusively for them.

The Yurok Tribe is currently in the design process of constructing a veterans cemetery for American Indians in Del Norte and Humboldt counties. It would be built on five acres of tribal trust land located on Bald Hills Road in northern Humboldt County.

To be funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ State Cemetery Grants Program, which is still pending approval, the proposed cemetery would offer up to 500 burial sites.

Some 15,000 veterans reside in Del Norte and Humboldt counties, according to the California Department of Veterans Affairs. At least 200 are Yurok.

The VA maintains 131 national cemeteries in 39 states. The nearest one to Native veterans in Del Norte and Humboldt counties is in San Francisco, more than 300 miles away. California has three state veterans cemeteries, with the closest one being the Northern California Veterans Cemetery, a little over 200 miles away.

Sophia Lay, project manager and a planner for the tribe, said it can be hard for a veteran to find a suitable burial site due to the cost, which can often run as high as $10,000.

“I am really excited about this opportunity to give back to Native veterans,” she said.

The tribe estimates that the cemetery will accommodate 50 burials per year in the first 10 years of operation. It would have a 70 percent-30 percent mix of standard 10’x5’ in-ground burial sites and 5’x5’cremation interment sites.

The land that the cemetery will be built on is part of a 40-acre tract, so there is plenty of room to expand in the future. This is important for, as Lay pointed out, the VA requires creating a master plan that looks 40 years out.

In addition to the burial sites, the plan includes a solar-powered committal shelter. This open, covered area for interment services is a component that the VA requires, Lay said. A few elements, however, will reflect the tribe’s culture, such as a roof line that mimics the roof line of a traditional Yurok redwood plank house.

Also in the plans (and another VA-required component) is a memorial walkway. Here the seals of all branches of the armed services will be displayed on a concrete wall stamped with Yurok basket designs. If the tribe has its way, there will be a place to put the names of the deceased Native veterans.

Lay emphasized that the project is in the design process. “Nothing is final at this point,” she said.

The tribe projects the cost for the funerary grounds to be in the vicinity of $1.6 million. Yet the exact amount will not be known until after it solicits construction bids.

There is a question mark next to the completion date too because it depends on the VA grant. Lay said, though, it is aiming to have it done in the Spring 2012.

Yurok Councilmember Richard Myers, 66 and a veteran, embraces the planned cemetery, as, he said, the tribe has only a few small, community-type cemeteries.

“This is going to be helpful for a lot of vets who don’t have a special place to go, especially with the cost of everything nowadays,” he said.

Myers joined the Navy in 1962. Serving with the Submarine Unit, he was stationed at various locales, including New London, Conn., Charleston, S.C. and Spain. He was discharged in 1966.

When asked if the cemetery would be his final resting place, Myers said simply, “It is a possibility.”

The Yurok Tribe is not the only tribe planning on constructing a veterans cemetery. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, according to a few reports, is currently in the process of obtaining a $5.3 million VA State Cemetery Grant to place a national cemetery on its reservation. It was reviewing bids for architecture and engineering design in February.

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