Lower Elwha Klallam battle to rebury ancestors
State disturbed village site, cemetery during construction project
PORT ANGELES, Wash. -- Lower Elwha Klallam people last lived at
Tse-whit-zen in the 1800s, but the memories of village life are still
Several older Lower Elwha Klallam -- like Helen Charles, who, in 1936, was
the last Klallam born on Ediz Hook, near Tse-whit-zen -- remember stories
told by grandparents and great-grandparents of daily life there. About 800
etched rocks found at the site provide a record of ceremonies, births and
deaths there, Lower Elwha Klallam Chairman Frances Charles said. Longhouses
were torn down when a mill was built at the site in the 1920s.
"Non-Native people have stepped forward and told us that they knew about
the village and the burials," Charles said. "They remembered their parents
telling them about it."
Still, in August 2003, the state Department of Transportation began
excavating the industrialized site to build bridge pontoons for its Hood
Canal Bridge project. Lower Elwha Klallam representatives monitored site
work in the event remains or artifacts were found.
At first, a few remains were found; as the work progressed, several hundred
What the state unearthed was the largest indigenous pre-contact village
ever discovered in Washington, portions of which date back more than 2,700
years. The project was stopped in January.
Now, the Lower Elwha Klallam are locked in a legal battle with the state to
rebury 335 ancestors whose remains are stored in cedar boxes in a
warehouse. In addition, the Lower Elwha Klallam want to re-inter fragments
of remains and artifacts contained in 2,000 truckloads of soil being stored
in a landfill.
The state owns the Tse-whit-zen site. Lower Elwha Klallam says the site is
a cemetery and wants to purchase and maintain it.
Charles said the state DOT "has the keys" to the landfill and that Lower
Elwha Klallam must follow a protocol to access the site.
Lower Elwha Klallam filed a lawsuit Aug. 12 in Thurston County Superior
Court. The defendants are the state DOT; the state Department of Archeology
and Historic Preservation; state Transportation Secretary Douglas B.
MacDonald; Allyson Brooks, state historic preservation officer; contractor
Peter Kiewit Sons, Inc.; and Jonathan Shotwell Corp., owner of the landfill
storing soil which the Lower Elwha Klallam say contains thousands of
fragments of remains and artifacts.
Artifacts found at Tse-whit-zen include funerary objects, tools and an
elegant hair comb carved from bone.
In a 48-page response filed Oct. 3, the state alleges Lower Elwha Klallam
shares the blame. The state claims that Lower Elwha Klallam stated an
archaeological or historic find was unlikely; test holes drilled at the
site by the state seemed to back that up when they revealed nothing. The
claim also denies intentional desecration of graves or knowledge of removal
of remains to the landfill.
The state also claims Lower Elwha Klallam gave permission to proceed with
the project and accepted a settlement offer of $3.4 million after remains
were first discovered on the site, in exchange for a promise to not sue.
Charles said the settlement was based on the discovery of about 25 burials
-- and the state's assurance that other discoveries were unlikely.
Lower Elwha Klallam claims the DOT determined in its own "cursory
archaeological assessment of only a portion of the [construction] site"
that it was unlikely that more burials would be disturbed. Lower Elwha
Klallam notified the state otherwise; it claims it warned the state in
writing in February 2003 of the close proximity of the construction area to
Tse-whit-zen and urged the state "to proceed cautiously with any
construction or excavation."
The village's history is prominent, attorneys Gabriel Galanda and Debora
Juarez of Williams, Kastner & Gibbs wrote in the lawsuit. "The written and
oral historic record, as well as ethnographic documentation, contains
numerous references to Tse-whit-zen and its cemetery. The village and
historical cemetery have been determined eligible and nominated for listing
on the National Register of Historic Places."
In addition to the village's archaeological and historic importance,
Tse-whit-zen is a sacred part of the Lower Elwha Klallam's heritage -- a
cultural setting the people consider their ancestral and spiritual home,
the attorneys wrote.
According to the lawsuit, Lower Elwha Klallam members "watched helplessly
as heavy construction equipment desecrated the historical cemetery. They
viewed skulls, bones and cultural artifacts protruding from spoil piles.
They objected to continued excavation and [pleaded] with the State and its
contractors to slow down and stop work, in respect for their ancestors.
Although the defendants purported to listen to the Tribe and its members,
nobody heard them."
Lower Elwha Klallam wants to use the $3.4 million settlement to purchase
and maintain the village site and cemetery. It also wants steel pilings
driven into the Tse-whit-zen site removed.
"We'd been negotiating to return intact burials to their resting places as
well as protect those dumped in the landfill since the beginning of the
year. But we weren't getting anywhere," Charles said in announcing the
"Then we learned that a statute of limitations in a law protecting Indian
graves was about to run out. The clock was running and we did what we had
to, to protect our rights.
"We never expected that the state would have this much trouble returning
burials to a cemetery."
Oct. 4, as her attorneys reviewed the state's response to the lawsuit,
Charles was at Lower Elwha Klallam's Lincoln Park longhouse for a ceremony
in which a Skokomish family would be returning a song to the Lower Elwha
The song, Charles said, originated at Tse-whit-zen. The song is symbolic of
the healing that will take place. "There is a lot of healing that is still
needed," she said.
Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash.
Contact him at email@example.com.
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