Elwha Elegy

A major archaeological find forces an Olympic Peninsula town to re-examine the past and the future.

On a cold day in January, archaeologist Dennis Lewarch walks the excavated surface of a construction site on the Port Angeles waterfront. He stops at an exposed section of ancient shell midden. "We're standing on a 1,700-year-old beach," he says. "People were living here then, and their tools are everywhere." He picks up a split basalt cobble and hands it to me. "You see how this was worked to fit your grip? It's a cutting tool, probably used for fish."

The beach formed after the sea level stabilized and the protecting sand spit now known as Ediz Hook appeared, Lewarch explains. Radiocarbon dates from a cooking hearth go back 2,700 years. The site shows continuous occupation from 1,700 years ago until about 200 years ago. But archaeologists have barely begun to analyze their findings.

The discovery came as no surprise to the 850-member Elwha Klallam tribe, whose reservation lies six miles to the west. Tribal traditions have long held that the Elwha people have always lived here, since the time of their creation on the Elwha River.

Along with the cutting stones, Lewarch, a senior archaeologist with Larson Anthropological and Archaeological Services, and his crew uncovered more than 13,000 artifacts. Included are elaborately decorated hair pieces and blanket pins, needles, as well as etched stones and other ceremonial objects. Beside the bones of seals, whales, and sea otters were harpoon points, halibut hooks, fishing weights, and antler hafts for knives and axes. "This site has one of everything, and a lot of things that have never been found before on the Northwest coast," Lewarch says. When cataloged, it might yield the largest bone and antler artifact collection in the U.S.

One reason for that is the sheer scale of the industrial facility that had been planned here. To remove threatened cultural treasures, a crew of 40 archaeologists and 80 to 100 tribal members worked on the site through last summer and fall. They mapped at least six houses and numerous cooking hearths. The result is the largest pre-European-contact village site ever excavated in Washington.

But on this frozen afternoon, the construction site is eerily still.

Sixteen months and $58 million into the construction project, the state called it quits. The future of this village site may now depend on the descendants of the people buried here—and a rural community hungry for jobs.

In 2003, the state Department of Transportation purchased the 22.5-acre property from the Port of Port Angeles for use as a graving yard. That summer, contractors began excavation for a massive, 10-acre concrete dry dock. When finished, it was to be used to construct pontoons, anchors, and bridge decks for a $300 million reconstruction of the aging Hood Canal bridge, a lifeline for the peninsula's economy.

Due to fast-track scheduling, site approval was expedited with an environmental assessment rather than a more comprehensive environmental impact statement. The initial archaeological survey, conducted by Western Shore Heritage Services of Bainbridge Island, found no evidence of human presence.

The Elwha Klallam people, of course, knew better. Tribal traditions, an 1853 government map, and other sources identified the site as part of Tse-whit-zen, one of more than a dozen Klallam winter villages tucked along the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Memories of being forcibly removed from the village area by white townspeople are a bitter part of tribal lore.

"I think the community of Port Angeles was aware that this was a village site," says tribal Chair Frances Charles. "There's a lot of information out there." Yet despite a public investment of $19 million in the graving dock facility, neither the state nor the Port of Port Angeles consulted the tribe before the property was sold, says Charles.

The project, which promised 100 jobs and $17 million in revenue to the Port Angeles community, was hailed as an economic boon. Groundbreaking took place on Aug. 11, 2003. "That was the last good day we had on this project," admits Doug MacDonald, secretary of the state Department of Transportation, the agency responsible for the bridge repair. "Within days, we found the first human remains. A week later, there were 11 graves."

As required by the 1990 Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, contractors ceased work, and the state began consultations with the tribe. A table burning, a traditional offering of food and clothing to the ancestors' spirits, was held with state and local officials and contractors taking part. An atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect prevailed, but the closed-door negotiations were high stakes.

The Elwha people demanded that a complete archaeological survey be conducted before major construction resumed. After months, an agreement was reached, in March 2004. The tribe received $3.4 million for purchase of land for reburials, to hire consultants, and to begin to develop a curatorial facility for artifacts. At the time, about 20 burials had been discovered; few more were expected.

Tribal members worked closely with archaeologists and contractors, and limited construction resumed. But witnessing their ancestors being unearthed from centuries-old graves was heartrending.

Even more painful to the Elwha people was the discovery that a large number of burials had been desecrated. In 1914 when millionaire developer Michael Earles built a sawmill on the site, pilings were driven though Klallam graves. Burials were unearthed, and remains were used in backfill for pipes and utility lines. Bones and fragments of adults and children were scattered.

Local officials, state legislators, and community leaders expressed shame and sorrow as the discovery was made known and promised to work to find a suitable site for reburial. So far, none has been found.

As archaeological work continued from spring into summer of last year, no one—not the state, archaeologists, or the tribe—had any idea of the extent of the village and cemetery that would be unearthed.

Archaeologists and tribal members exhumed 315 intact burials and well over 1,000 partial or scattered remains. Some were buried with elaborate ceremony; others were interred singly or in small family groups. Mass graves were a vivid reminder of smallpox.

A tribal carver and assistant worked overtime to keep up with the demand for cedar burial boxes. But as the boxes multiplied, the Klallam people became increasingly distressed. The tribe sought assurance that they would be able to recover all of their ancestors from the construction site. Tribal members didn't want to leave the spirits of their ancestors entombed beneath a massive concrete slab.

No agreement was reached with the Port of Port Angeles or the adjacent Nippon Paper Industries Co., Ltd. paper mill to purchase a site for reburial, however. Even as the burial count topped 200, the Department of Transportation maintained that it was legally bound to recover only remains that would be directly disturbed by construction, a position backed by the Federal Highway Administration. Says MacDonald: "We had to have a schedule and a projected cost. We were prepared to let the project slip another year, but we needed a proposal and a timeline from the tribe. We couldn't put unlimited dollars into this."

Faced with an impasse, the tribe made the decision it had been hoping to avoid. On Dec. 10, 2004, tribal Chair Charles wrote the department of transportation asking that the project be stopped. The following week, the state Transportation Commission conceded to the tribe's request. On Dec. 21, MacDonald broke the news to the city. Without the tribe's consent, the project would not continue. He had the backing of the agencies and the governor.

The timing was less than ideal. Archaeologists and construction workers, including close to 90 tribal members, were laid off the week before Christmas. Though some work remained to complete archaeological projects and put the site to bed, by mid-January the gate to the graving yard was closed.

It fell to Transportation Secretary MacDonald to explain the decision to the community. "The tribe has legal leverage," he told a packed house at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in January, "but what drove this decision was a concern for doing what was right. This has a been very difficult reality check."

That night, MacDonald answered some tough questions at the Local 1303 Carpenters/Pile Drivers union hall. He told union members it no longer made sense to continue spending money on the site. The state's highest priority for the Olympic Peninsula, he told them, was repairing the failing Hood Canal bridge. "We have to get to a place where we can get that job done."

In contrast to the local officials I spoke with, MacDonald seemed willing to connect the dots. At the chamber luncheon, he suggested that "the people at the port" learn a little bit about what was found out at the site this summer. As head of the agency holding the trump card, he ramped up his message for the unionists. "It's got to be dawning on someone that there are some folks in the community who have not been talking to each other for the last few months, for the last few years—or for a century." He urged those present and their community leaders to open an overdue dialogue with tribal members and to listen to their concerns.

Whether community leaders take that message to heart remains to be seen. The Elwha Klallam people want their ancestors returned to their traditional burial ground. They would like someday to build a curatorial facility and museum. Some forward-looking members of the Port Angeles community see the glint of opportunity. Given the significance of the archaeological find, funding could be sought for a state-of-the-art museum, interpretive center, and curatorial facility. The loss of short-term construction jobs, they suggest, would be more than offset by the economic benefits of a world-class cultural attraction on the waterfront.

With the federal government set to remove two dams and restore historic salmon runs to the Elwha River, a cultural center celebrating the Elwha people's heritage would be a fitting complement.

It might also go a long way toward healing past digressions. It hasn't been lost on the tribe that the dam that destroyed the salmon runs central to their survival was built to supply power to Mike Earles' 1914 mill. The mill's construction, on land donated by the city, desecrated Klallam graves.

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