Ancient village, graveyard torn apart by bridge project
Seattle Times staff reporter
PORT ANGELES — In a makeshift morgue, handmade cedar boxes are stacked row upon row, each holding the ancient remains of the ancestors of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, all facing east toward the sunrise.
Ripped from what was to be their final resting place, the remains were put here for safekeeping until the tribe can find a place for their dead to rest once more.
The bones have been exhumed by contractors for the state Department of Transportation as it builds a marine facility needed for reconstruction of the Hood Canal Bridge.
The excavation inadvertently unearthed Tse-whit-zen, the largest prehistoric Indian village ever discovered in Washington, portions of which date back more than 1,700 years.
With each shovel of dirt, the state and tribe have come to realize what they are grappling with. One of Washington's largest transportation projects is amid the region's richest archaeological site, including an ancient cemetery.
Excavation has desecrated grave after grave, including 264 intact human skeletons so far, and more than 700 isolates, or bone fragments. The remains reveal statements of rank, of love and grief: shamans dusted with red ochre; couples buried with limbs intertwined; mass graves, signaling smallpox.
More than 5,000 artifacts have surfaced, including blanket pins fashioned in the shapes of animals; a stone rake for harvesting herring; hand tools; even the intact, sacrificial remains of sea otters offered to the spirit world.
The unprecedented discovery is causing anguish to both sides. Already facing delays costing tens of millions of dollars, the state wants to limit the tribe's insistence to search for more remains. At risk is the state's ability to replace the eastbound lanes of the Hood Canal Bridge, a critical project, state officials say, that is more than a year behind schedule.
But the tribe is insisting the state keep exploring for remains the tribe does not want entombed below a 10-acre concrete slab. Such a barrier would condemn the spirits of the dead buried below to be forever separated from their loved ones, said Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
So far, the conflict has defied resolution.
"This is a sacred cemetery," Charles said. "We have an ancient village being destroyed as we talk. I don't think anyone has given more than the tribe has already given in allowing the project to continue for the betterment of the state and Clallam County. But we need to explore the site so the tribe is comfortable, so we know we did our best to get our ancestors out. We cannot leave them behind."
The richness of the archeological find is stunning. Yet, test holes dug before construction turned up nothing. Work began in August 2003, and within weeks, workers unearthed the first artifacts — and remains.
"You look at the scale of the site and you say, 'How in the world was this missed?' " said Doug MacDonald, secretary of the state Department of Transportation.
After the initial find, work stopped. The tribe and agencies negotiated for months on a solution that would allow the project to proceed. A deal was struck to remove human remains. Above all, retrieving their ancestors was most important to the tribe. In return, it reluctantly sacrificed the remnants of its ancient village so long as some of the site was sampled for artifacts by archaeologists. So far, the archaeological work has cost the state about $5 million.
The tribe also received $3 million from the state to acquire land to rebury the remains.
When the agreement was reached last March, about two dozen burials had been discovered. All sides thought it was unlikely that many more would be found. But today, it's clear the state's project is atop a major cemetery. Now the tribe wants to renegotiate its deal with the state to recover more burials, and the state is resisting.
"It's a certainty that there are burial remains," MacDonald said. "Every time we dig ... we are going to find more archaeological material, and this is not stuff you want thrown in a landfill someplace to be pillaged by pot hunters. You don't just go willy-nilly through this stuff, throwing it aside, looking for burials."
Initially, MacDonald said, he thought he had a solution by leaving remains behind below the level of the state's excavation for the project. "But the tribe doesn't want to lay people below concrete. That's a new card: They do not want to separate the community. Since that fell apart, I am un-moored.
"We are going to entomb people there."
To some, the surprise isn't that the bridge project is delayed, but that it has gone as far as it has.
"I know of no publicly funded project in the United States that has continued with this many graves," said David Rice, senior archeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle District. "There is no end in sight, and we are approaching 1,000. Most sites I know of that found as many as 30 burials were stopped in their tracks.
"This is unprecedented in the United States."
Bones have been inadvertently hauled to the dump and left on construction spoil, split in half by excavators and crumbled as they were dragged across the bottoms of ditches with excavating equipment. Skulls have been shattered, and the remains of families that were buried together have been scattered.
The village site itself is being destroyed, day by day; already the remains of cooking areas, and the outlines of six plank houses used as permanent residences and ceremonial dance halls for the winter spirit dances, are lost to construction. Only a fraction of the project area is being sampled for artifacts by some 100 archaeologists and helpers swarming the site.
The state and tribe are now looking to the Federal Highway Administration for a resolution that will set the legal limits of the state's obligations to recover human remains from the site.
The Army Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, may take another look at the project.
"It's clear the whole area is a cemetery," Rice said. "We have a real dilemma. It's an archaeological site of unparalleled significance in the region. This is a real shame. Shouldn't the site be preserved?"
The corps did not know what lay under the ground before it issued a permit, Rice said. "And it triggers a level of significance eligible for National Environmental Policy Act review," he said. "The fate of the project hangs in the balance."
The corps could also pull its permit, throwing a wrench into the project, Rice said.
This mess, the tribe says, is far from its fault. The Transportation Department began planning the project in November 1997, bought the land for the project from the port of Port Angeles in 2003 but didn't sit down to formally consult with the tribe about the project until late last year.
"From the perspective of sitting down, getting to know each other, understanding perspectives, building relations, if all that is what constitutes adequate consultation, I'd have to say we didn't go to those lengths entering into the site," said Randall Hain, administrator for the department's Olympic region.
"Looking back on the situation now, we in the department will take this as a lesson learned."
The dispute is a reminder of the history of explorers who first made contact with the tribes' ancestors on these same shores, bringing smallpox and other diseases that filled the tribal graves being unearthed today.
"We are still living the effects of that contact, we are connected to those burials," MacDonald said. "That's relevant to this damn problem."
For the tribe, the construction project is one more violation. Its people were moved off this land once before, and now, they are being moved off it again, even in the grave.
"No one would allow this to happen anywhere else, knowing what we know now," Charles said. If it were a non-native cemetery this would not be happening, she said.
"This project is a big mistake. It is a burden they can walk away from, but we live here and we will always live here, and will always remember what has happened that shouldn't happen. There is no price for the damages that are being done. Our ancestors are not to be negotiated."
The mournful sound of a wooden flute threads the dusty air as tribal-construction monitors painstakingly search the excavation for artifacts and assist archaeologists exhuming human remains.
Johnson Charles, one of the tribe's spiritual advisers, says he comes to the site every day to calm it with his flute. He helps bring what dignity he can to his tribe's sacred ground amid the noise of track hoes, pile drivers, generators and porta-pottys — including a cluster near active burial excavations.
For most of the tribal workers, the job carries a heavy toll. Some say they are led to human remains by dreams; some say nightmares torment their sleep.
They go to their elders to have their sorrow brushed away with cedar boughs, and when they enter the construction site, they anoint their faces with red ochre for protection against spirits angered at the disturbance of the graves. Workers exhuming remains also rub ochre on their wrists, where the earth touches them. Some use trowels with handles carved with the faces of eagles or ravens.
As they leave the site, tribal workers pause at a basin filled with a brew of snowberries steeped in water, splashing it on their skin to rinse off bad feelings from spirits they sense crowding the very air.
Many tribal members believe that spirits that have crossed into the next world are just as alive as in this one. A ritual burning after death sends food stacked on cedar tables into the spirit world, along with favorite possessions. Clothing, burned in piles on the ground, is sent across, too, for the use of the dead, including adult clothing for children, who will grow into it as their life goes on in the spirit world, just as it does here, Frances Charles said.
Watching the graves being disturbed has already been too much to bear.
"I feel I am at my last thread; it has been overwhelming to feel the things we feel and see the things we see," said Carmen Charles, 21, the tribal chairwoman's niece. The Charles family is one of the largest on the reservation.
She said she was forced, because of contractors in a hurry to sink a piling, to break apart the bodies of a couple, buried with their legs linked, their arms around each other, and faces turned to one another.
"It was very hard, something I will have to live with the rest of my life. You are literally staring into your ancestors' eyes, into their souls. Sometimes you have to break a bone to get it out, and it's this rush of sadness, I just have to turn off my emotions."
Amid sorrow, a revival
Discoveries at the site have also brought excitement, and sparked a cultural revival. Tribal members for the first time are seeing physical evidence of the lives of the people who lived on the site, from whom they are directly descended.
Some never knew their people lived in longhouses, or wore the red paint in spirit dances, or passed on sacred rituals with etched stones that tell the story of the ceremonies.
More than 200 of the stones have been found so far, incised with teachings of the tribe's sacred ceremonies. Whether turning a baby from a breached position, confronting the death of a spouse or parent or being initiated into the longhouse, the tribe had teachings to consult, etched into the stones.
"The etched stones, we heard legends about them, but no one had ever seen them," Carmen Charles said. "What better way to open our eyes for my generation. We are getting things back. But it shouldn't have happened this way."
Kin in Canada and around Puget Sound who also have familial ties to the tribe's ancestors are bringing over stories and songs, and explanations of rituals the Lower Elwha Klallam never knew before. They are also offering support to a tribe whose culture they say has been violated.
Delbert Miller, a spiritual adviser to the Skokomish tribe, said, "It is a crime against humanity, that is what it is to me.
"I've seen very, very private, and personal ways the bodies were buried, in fetal positions, with their hands to their face. There are very personal things that are being revealed; when I think about it I get a bitter and hateful feeling, and in my life I've never had that feeling before."
For elders who, as children, watched their people pushed off Ediz Hook and the inner Port Angeles harbor by white settlers, the desecration has been particularly painful.
Helen Charles, minister of the Shaker church and the last Indian to be born on the spit in 1936, ritually cleanses workers who come to her house for solace. "The only thing I can do is pray. They are weighed down with what they are digging up."
"Re-housing the ancestors"
It's the special boxes that bother Darrell Charles Jr., the most; the small ones for infants, the large ones for mass graves. He's put in more than one all-nighter to build as many cedar boxes as the tribe needs to keep up with the remains that are unearthed.
First, the tribe needed 10 boxes, then 15, then 20, now he just keeps making them, 250 so far and counting, with the help of a fellow artist and carver. Planed and sanded smooth, the red-cedar planks are held together with yellow-cedar pegs and strong enough to carry 200 pounds, necessary when they hold dust to dust — the powdery remains of bones too ancient to hold together when disturbed, mixed with dirt from the site.
"It bothered me at first, making these," Charles Jr. said. "But now it doesn't, just because of the need. We are re-housing the ancestors, is what it is."
To Beatrice Charles, 85, and her aunt, Adeline Smith, 86, no one should be surprised it has come to this. When they were children, they were warned never to walk across the ground where track hoes now rumble over the earth. It was sacred ground, a place where children were never to play.
But Bea Charles remembers another teaching, too, from her elders: That the tribe — whose Klallam name means "the strong people" — would be nearly wiped out. But they would come back.
"It seems that we have been defeated for so long that we think we are defeated, when we shouldn't," Bea Charles said.
"We have got to come back strong. Say, 'Enough is enough.' "
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com
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