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Lower Elwha Klallam, state settle Tse-whit-zen dispute

PORT ANGELES, Wash. – Lower Elwha Klallam will receive $5.5 million and 17 acres of ancestral land in a settlement with the state over the desecration of a burial ground at the ancestral village of Tse-whit-zen.

The agreement could set a precedent for similar cases across the United States; it establishes rules for the reporting and handling of remains and cultural artifacts discovered in construction projects in historic Klallam shoreline areas. In addition, the state will fund a city archaeologist position at Port Angeles City Hall; the city is within historic Klallam territory.

The agreement was reached Aug. 14, ending eight months of active negotiations. It came almost a year to the day after Lower Elwha Klallam filed suit against the state for the disturbance of Tse-whit-zen and the unearthing of graves there.

The state will remove a large concrete pad and pilings that were installed at Tse-whit-zen. Site restoration will follow and reburials could begin by late summer, said Gabe Galanda, Nomlaki/Concow, an attorney with Williams, Kastner & Gibbs and a member of the negotiating team.

More than 300 intact remains rest in handmade cedar boxes stored in a warehouse. Fragments of remains and artifacts are believed to be contained in 2,000 truckloads of soil stored at a landfill.

“We look forward to when our ancestors will return to their final resting place,” Lower Elwha Klallam Chairman Frances Charles said. “For us, reburial is what this has always been about.”

She added, “Once the last box is placed in the ground, that will be closure to me.”

The agreement brings the land back full circle to the Klallam people. The land is on Ediz Hook on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates Olympia Peninsula from Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Klallam elders such as Hazel Sampson, 96, remember life at Tse-whit-zen.

Klallam people were forced to leave Ediz Hook by the 1920s by industrial development; longhouses were torn down when a mill was built at the site in the 1920s. But Tse-whit-zen was well-documented and non-Native residents of the area knew that burials had taken place there.

Ancestral graves were discovered in August 2003, soon after the state Department of Transportation began excavation at the site for the development of a facility to build concrete pontoons that would replace aging pontoons on the Hood Canal Bridge.

By the time work stopped in December 2004, the state had unearthed the largest indigenous pre-contact village ever discovered in Washington, portions of which date back more than 2,700 years. About 800 etched rocks found at the site provide a record of ceremonies, births and deaths there, Charles said.

The settlement ensures the sacred site “won’t ever be developed again,” Galanda said.

Eleven acres, which will be transferred to Klallam ownership, will become a “cemetery of national significance,” Galanda said. A healing pole has been pledged for the site by Lummi master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James.

Six adjacent acres, which will be leased to the Klallam people, will be set aside for a “world-class” museum and interpretive center, Galanda said. Lower Elwha Klallam has consulted with Seattle architect John Paul Jones, Cherokee, designer of the National Museum of the American Indian.

In addition, the agreement provides Lower Elwha Klallam a total of $5.5 million for the reburial of remains and materials and for site restoration.

“This has been a difficult experience for everyone,” Charles said. “We have been forced to understand each other. But the compromise we have reached suggests we have more values in common than different.”

Perhaps the most powerful moment came when negotiators toured the warehouse and saw the handmade cedar boxes – each traditionally made, each containing a set of remains.

The thought of ancestors’ remains sitting in a warehouse or landfill was compelling, Galanda said.

“Everybody in the negotiations appreciated the need for ancestors to be reburied,” Galanda said. “That common value is probably what drove negotiations.”

Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, of Williams, Kastner & Gibbs, added, “It was important for the community to recognize that the tribes were not just unhappy about the disturbance of an old cemetery, but concerned with continued protection of its ancestors.”

In a statement announcing the agreement, Gov. Christine Gregoire said, “This agreement brings positive closure to a difficult and painful experience.” But the agreement also protects the ability of the city and port authority to plan maritime development in the area around Tse-whit-zen.

Lower Elwha Klallam acknowledged in the agreement that land surrounding its cultural site “will be utilized for heavy industrial and maritime use creating noise, dust, vibration and other similar impacts typical of such uses.” The agreement states that Lower Elwha Klallam “shall determine and install appropriate buffers for its cultural and historic preservation uses.”

However, the agreement provides a protocol to protect human remains and artifacts.

Charles said of the protocols, “We wanted a precedent to be set, something that said, ‘This is what you need to look for.’”

<i>Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.