Rest In Peace? 

Sula’s quiet conflict over a Native American grave

Rima Bruce loves all her children. And Aaron, the son she lost to suicide after years of battling a serious mental illness, is as special to her as those who are still living.

Three years ago, at the time of Aaron’s death, the Sula Women’s Club bought a burial plot in the tiny Sula Cemetery high in the Bitterroot foothills and gave it to the Bruce family—a token of their affection and concern for neighbors in the remote but tight-knit community.

But the gift has taken on an ugly edge and Bruce now finds herself at odds with former friends, some of whom don’t approve of the way she has memorialized Aaron’s grave.

Aaron was 22 when he lost a long battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Unable to cope, he killed himself. Both his mother and father were part Native American and Aaron had immersed himself in his ancestry.

At the funeral, Aaron’s older brother, who lives out of state, asked his mother for a promise: that no grass would be allowed to grow on Aaron’s grave until he was able to return again for a final goodbye.

It seemed an easy request to follow. This is not a Forest Lawn-type resting place. The cemetery lies on a pine-covered hillside. The only irrigation is from summer rainstorms. The graves lie beneath a carpet of native grasses and fallen pine needles. It is so remote it is difficult to get to at any time and impossible to visit during the winter months.

Bruce says she covered Aaron’s grave with an Indian-pattern blanket to discourage weeds from growing and to honor her son’s beliefs. At the head of the grave is a medicine staff with the words “honor” and “respect” etched on it. Attached to the staff, a feather and streamers in Aaron’s favorite colors flutter in the wind. At the base of the staff is the small carved head of a Native American.

“I spend more time in the cemetery than anyone else in Sula,” Bruce says. “There are deep knee holes at the end of the grave. I feel close to Aaron there.”

But last spring, just before Memorial Day, Bruce got a call from fellow Sula Women’s Club member, Carol Huffman, who had an astonishing ultimatum.

“She said, ‘Well, you’ve got an option. You’re taking that stuff off the grave or I am,’ and all I could ask was ‘Why?’” Bruce recalls. She was told a veterans’ group was going to be decorating graves in the cemetery for Memorial Day and Aaron’s grave was an “embarrassment” to other community members.

Huffman’s telephone has been disconnected, and the Independent was not able to contact her for a comment.

Rather than cause a fuss, Bruce removed the grave trappings for that day and then put them back again. Since then, she has heard from some community members who support her and some who don’t like her choice of cerements. But she believes she is right in her choice of memorials.

“Aaron was a Christian boy and he also adhered to the Native American traditions,” his mother says. “I thought it was pleasing to him to have the grave like that.”

Now Memorial Day is fast approaching and the Sula Cemetery Board will soon hold its annual meeting. Bruce has been told the controversy over Aaron’s grave may lead to a set of rules about what is “suitable” for marking graves there. An injunction about the decorations on Aaron’s grave may be made permanent. The board is talking about logging some of the cemetery’s pines to raise money to hire a caretaker to do what each family has traditionally done in the past, she adds.

“We don’t have a diversity of people up there,” Bruce says. “There’s one other Native American and he’s off in a corner by himself. There are only two young people buried there, Aaron and one other. It seems there’s no room for diversity.”

The cemetery is owned by the Sula community and overseen by a board of community residents. It receives a small appropriation of Ravalli County tax dollars each year to help with upkeep. That alone should be enough to ensure that no discrimination takes place, but Bruce worries.

According to Gary Wetzsteon, the president of the Sula Cemetery Association Board, there had been a problem last year, but it ended when Bruce removed the items from Aaron’s grave. He was not aware that the decorations had been returned.

“They were removed the day we cleaned the place up last year. There’s no problem now, no story,” Wetzsteon insists. “As far as I know, I don’t see a problem up there now.”

The board has asked for copies of cemetery policies from Hamilton and Corvallis and is reviewing those policies now. At a meeting later this spring the board will develop a policy that fits the Sula Cemetery’s needs and adopt it, Wetzsteon says.

“I won’t go to the meeting unless I have something definite to say, and right now I don’t know what that would be,” Bruce says. “If I can go back there and look at the grave and it is the same, it means a lot to me.”

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