Community prepares for reinterment of ancestral remains

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REPRESENTATIVES from different departments and agencies gathered on Wednesday morning at the Imperial Pacific International Resort & Casino in Garapan to conduct a dry run of the reburial ritual for the ancestral remains that were found at the IPI construction site.

Over 700 ancestral remains will be laid to rest this Friday in a four-pocket grave that will be sealed with a concrete lid after a traditional reburial ceremony.

The funeral procession will begin at 8:30 a.m. from the Historic Preservation Office with about 30 trucks carrying the remains to the main entrance of the IPI casino.

HPO received and prepared the remains for burial by cleaning and putting them in cloth bags and into woven baskets.

The baskets were then arranged in funeral biers that will be carried from transport vehicles to their final resting place.

The site includes two separate archaeological excavations.

Pallbearers will unload the remains and carry them to the burial site on the back end of the casino while traditional chants are recited and conchs or “kulu” are blown.

The procession will be led by the Department of Public Safety, the Indigenous Affairs Office, the Historic Preservation Office, and will include representatives from various departments and agencies, such as the Department of Public Works, the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, the Office of the Saipan Mayor, the Division of Environmental Quality, the CNMI 2020 Census Office, and the Commonwealth Casino Commission to name a few.

About 150 people will be directly involved in the procession and ceremony, with approximately 40 groups carrying about six to eight baskets each.

A volunteer from CUC, Jeffrey Reyes, who will be one of the pallbearers of the ancestral remains, said HPO had reached out to the agency.

“My thoughts on this is that it’s really good, so that we can bring back our ancestors and their remains back to their proper burial area,” Reyes said, noting that this will be his first time participating in this ancient ritual.

Frances Sablan, a cultural practitioner, will be one of the approximately 10 chanters at the reinterment ceremony, and will also be coordinating with the “kulu” blowers.

She explained that the traditional chants will include the “Kåin I Kulu,” which is “the call of the conch shells,” announcing that the remains have arrived and the procession will begin.

The first group of “kulu” blowers, she said, will go into the main entrance of the casino, which will then signal the beginning of the chants that will be recited until all the remains are laid in the grave.

Sablan said an ancient tune commonly used in funerals and has “really deep meaning, especially for seafarers asking for guidance, “Malak Na Puti’on Tåsi,” will be chanted during the ceremony.

“According to our elders, it is a traditional chant that has been passed on and we use it today very avidly in our Catholic church.

“One of the chants is really just kind of announcing that the ‘kulu’ blowers are coming from all directions…the north, south, east and west, and just kind of proclaiming what it is that we’ll be doing and the significance of the occasion…. It’s the spirit of our ancestors to pass on these beautiful chants.”

Regarding the actual reburial of the ancestral remains, Sablan said, “It’s long overdue, so I’m glad that this day is finally coming and our ancestors’ remains [will be] put to rest. I know that they were resting before we disturbed them, so we’re hoping to… let them rest again.”

She added, “It’s important because we’re recognizing them, we’re paying them homage, and we’re reflecting as to their importance — they were a part of our history. They are the reasons why our history and our culture remain intact, even though we’ve lost a lot, but we’re trying to do research [to] bring them back.”

She said the CNMI should “continue paying respects to our elders, acknowledging that they do exist. It doesn’t have to be at IPI or…other sites…but even in our own homes. Our ancestors, their spirits, we need to acknowledge them… They were here first [and] they are the owners of the land… Pay respect to our ancestors because we are part of them.”

A young “kulu” blower, DJ Cabrera, said he is excited to be a part of a reinterment ceremony for the very first time, noting that his father taught him how to blow the “kulu,” and “it was really easy.”


Historic Preservation Officer Rita Chong, center, directs volunteers on Wednesday at the IPI hotel-casino during a dry run of the reinterment ceremony that will take place this Friday. Photo by K-Andrea Evarose S. Limol

Also participating in the dry run were Rep. Luis John Castro, a cultural practitioner, and Sen. Sixto Igisomar.

“The most important thing that we can do for our ancestors is honor them,” Castro said. “If laying them to rest on Friday is the step we need to do, then we need to do that. Our ancestors wanted the best thing for us. The best thing we can do now… is to give them the respect we know they deserve.”

Igisomar said he is grateful that HPO “is putting this together with all of the other agencies and departments…for us to pay our respects…[and to] thank [our ancestors] for everything that they have done for us in the past to make us who we are today, and… remember them all the time in everything that we do.”

The senator said this is also an opportunity to apologize on behalf of everyone who has tampered with their ancestors’ resting place.

He said the ancestral remains were  excavated for the sake of progress,  but their burial site is still sacred ground.

“We are moving forward, doing the best that we can to pay our respects…. What’s done is done. We have disturbed [the remains], and we just hope to put them back to where they belong…. We need to make sure we do not allow it to happen again.”

Refaluwasch chief clan member Lino Olopai, during the reinterment of ancestral bones in Chalan Kanoa last week, said he would not be present at the inhumation in Garapan.

“I’m not going to attend. I can tell IPI that it’s kind of late. You should have worked with us and then learned from us. While there is deep debate about our ancestral bones, from the very beginning, you were very disrespectful. You want to pay our power and water bills without asking our concerns. You come in and flicked your billions and billions of dollars. Please, I am not going to attend even if you invited me.”

He said IPI is “probably one of the worst investors I’ve ever witnessed. I am now 80 years old, and I’ve never experienced anything like [this].”

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