A church proposal is resurrecting spiritual controversy in Carmacks.
The problem is its location.
The Carmacks Christian Fellowship will build their new church on the edge of town, in an area that many Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation elders say is a traditional burial ground.
Carmacks elder Johnny Sam is against the plan.
“Not only me, other elders too,” he said.
“They don’t like it anywhere near where there’s a gravesite, and they know there’s a gravesite in that area.”
The problem is that there’s no visual evidence of the cemetery there.
A fire ravaged the area in the 1940s, destroying all traces of the graves’ picket fences and spirit houses.
The church group has had anthropologists check the area for gravesites and they didn’t find any in the area.
“Anthropologist yeah, maybe they walk around and look around, but I just told you the fire was real bad around there,” said Sam.
“A real elder stated that they saw a gravesite there and I talked to another elder who figured there were cremations on the site.
“That’s why we proposed not to build a church there.”
“It’s sad because we’re offering programs for kids and teams; we’ve got Sunday school and the kids are crying to come all week long,” said church member Dawn Charlie.
“We have no place except around a campfire.”
“And the graves were found in a different place than where people figured they were,” Charlie added.
“They were around the corner.”
The church group looked throughout the site for evidence of the gravesite, said Charlie.
However, higher up, just above the village’s schoolyard, they found a knoll with three depressions on it.
They also found a small piece of the fence.
This is the gravesite that everyone is worried about, according to Charlie.
“No one wants to dig to prove it though,” she said.
“I don’t know how many people even know that we did discover them there.”
Little Salmon/Carmacks originally supported the plans for the new church.
The First Nation even wrote a letter of support.
But that was before it knew the church’s location.
The First Nation discovered where it was going to be built when bulldozers began clearing the lot in 2006.
Since then, during the summer, the church group has been holding services at the site.
First Nation elders held a meeting with the church group the following year.
“We suggested another option or another location,” said Sam.
“The elders told them that the church should move.”
“The church group was saying they were willing to move if they found a good place, said they could move from the burial site.”
But that same year, the church had the village of Carmacks rezone the area from park land to community use to allow for the church.
“There were a few rumblings and grumblings, but when we had the public meetings everyone knew they were there and nobody chose to come forward,” said Carmacks Mayor Elaine Wyatt.
“I believe the people that were bringing forward the application were there, but there was no opposition.”
Notice was sent to the First Nation, but there was no reply, said Wyatt.
“We didn’t have any reason not to allow the zoning process to be changed.”
“The lot is leased to us already; the only issue is the access road and the culvert in the approach up to the lot,” said Charlie.
“It’s been inspected by the highways department and it’s been approved.
“It’s much safer than us parking in the road.”
The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board is currently evaluating the access road and will be taking public comment until July 9.
There have been no submissions, so far.
With approval from the assessment board, the church group will be able to begin construction.
The gravesites in the area have a history of being disturbed.
Human remains were discovered when the Klondike Highway was built in the 1950s and again during roadwork in the 1970s.
“The elders don’t want any more disturbance up there than what there is already,” said Sam.
“The best thing to do is leave it alone; they shouldn’t be bothering a spiritual area.
“Even me, I don’t walk around in there unless I definitely have to,” he added.
“You’re supposed to leave it alone and let them have their rest.”
“We’re not opening a casino; we’re not opening a gambling joint or a brothel — you know, it’s a church,” said Charlie.
“And as it is we have a lot of kids and young people that are starting to come and it’s better than the other choice of drugs and alcohol.
“All we’re doing is trying to help the situation here.”
Charlie works for the First Nation government and is a member by marriage.
In fact, during calls to the First Nation for comment, a secretary recommended Charlie as someone able to speak about the church on the First Nation’s behalf.
This isn’t a conflict of interest, said Charlie.
The majority of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation elders and members are Christian, she said.
“Except the ones that are into drugs and alcohol.”
“It’s upsetting, because all we’re trying to do is help this town,” she continued.
“There are much more serious problems here than trying to build another church in town.”
But for many elders, the church site is a serious problem.
“If they want to go to heaven why don’t they do it somewhere else?” said Sam.
“We don’t go to their graveyards and bust everything up.”