Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lower Elwha get land to rebury their ancestors

Seattle Times staff reporter

PORT ANGELES — Three years after state construction crews accidentally unearthed an ancient tribal village, an agreement signed Monday gives the Lower Elwha Klallam people land to rebury their ancestors.

The state Department of Transportation mistakenly disturbed the village of Tse-whit-zen and human remains when it started construction in August 2003 on a dry-dock project at the Port Angeles waterfront.

The department stopped the project, needed to repair the Hood Canal bridge, at the request of the tribe in December 2004, after spending about $90 million.

On Monday, singers in traditional regalia sang an ancient song passed down from the ancestors of the village of Tse-whit-zen as the governor, tribal and city leaders officially agreed to transfer 11 acres of the waterfront to the tribe for reburial of more than 335 intact skeletons.

Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles says the tribe would like to begin reburial as soon as possible.

"This has been a long journey for all of us, and we will not rest until our ancestors are back in the ground."

The remains await reburial in handmade cedar boxes, in temporary storage on the Lower Elwha reservation.

Gov. Christine Gregoire acknowledged that for many the agreement marked a commemoration more than celebration.

"I wish we could say this is a tremendously joyous occasion but for many it is mainly a relief," Gregoire said. "I respect that. But hopefully we will see at least one thing in common, and that is that this is the end of a long and painful experience, and the beginning of a cultural renaissance."

Generations of tribal members turned out for the ceremony, seated alongside city and port officials. And for the first time anyone at Lower Elwha could remember at an official city event, their tribal flag was on the stage, along with the others.

All sides declared hope for a better future.

"It is going to take a lot of building of relationships and trust, because of the history," said tribal member Arlene Wheeler, cultural liaison for the tribe. "I don't think anything is going to happen overnight. But hopefully this is a new beginning for us, and all the generations to come."

Agreement details

It took a professional mediator to help produce the agreement, which settles lawsuits filed over the project by the state and tribe. The agreement now goes to a judge for approval.

According to the agreement:

• The state will remove a concrete pad poured for the dry dock and steel sheet piles. Portions of some 2,000 truckloads of material mistakenly containing artifacts and human remains will be returned to the site.

(The state has since found a different site for the bridge-repair project.)

• The tribe also receives $2.5 million and land leased from the state for a possible curation facility for more than 10,000 artifacts removed from the site.

• The governor committed to seek $15 million from the state Legislature for economic development for the city and Port of Port Angeles, to help replace the jobs and economic opportunity lost when the dry-dock project was terminated.

• The port, which also receives some land from the state, plans to use its property for log-yard storage and to construct a commercial barge berth. No excavation of the property is expected, and existing permits provided for the dry dock will be used.

Gift of totem pole

Plans for the cemetery are still taking shape, Charles said. The area may be grassed over, and the Lummi people have promised the gift of a totem pole to mark the spot.

Interpretative signs also will tell the story of the village and cemetery so it is not forgotten.

Some tribal members felt a new serenity after the agreement was signed.

"The ancestors are happy!" Tribal member Linda Laungayan sent in a text message to Wheeler after the ceremony.

"I saw them dancing, rejoicing, crying, hugging and gathering to celebrate. It's a great day. Let's not forget their joy that they get to rest in peace now."

Lynda Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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