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Snoqualmie heartache could prompt changes in law

FALL CITY, Wash. - When Andy de los Angeles walked into a small forest glade atop the Sammamish plateau to visit the grave of his grandfather last year, he confronted a shocking sight. Approximately 80 percent of the approximately 70 Indian graves had been unearthed.

His trained archaeologist's eye told him the grave robbing had been recent - within the past two years. He could also tell the job had been done by professionals. The earth had obviously been moved with a backhoe. Connecting trenches had been dug between test probes, 50 to 60 centimeters apart. Metal detectors had probably been used to locate test probe sites.

"At first I couldn't believe what I saw," De los Angeles said. "But because of the training of being an archaeologist, I recognized exactly what I was looking at. Exactly. It all clicked. I've heard stories and seen pictures of grave robbings throughout Eastern Washington."

Sick at heart, he reported the violation to his people.

The tribe's reaction was one of deep distress and mourning. Although the cemetery was not an official Snoqualmie site, nor on land under the tribe's jurisdiction, many tribal members had relatives buried there. Most graves dated from the early 1700s, some from much earlier.

Neighbors in two nearby housing developments recall seeing activity on the site. They were told the land was being developed and percolation tests were being conducted.

Rob Whitlam, chief archaeologist for the state of Washington, says one of the best ways to curtail this kind of activity is for people to be aware of what's going in their vicinity, and to contact local law authorities the moment something suspicious happens.

"If one sees anything suspicious, report it," Whitlam says. "Work with law enforcement authorities. It's particularly important for tribe's cultural staffs and legal staffs to follow up and document the damages that occur to a site, and also to provide technical expertise."

It is a crime to knowingly excavate or disturb Native American burial sites or archaeological sites on federal lands, state or political subdivisions of the state. Washington is one of the few states in the nation with a permit system that applies to private lands. But, according to the Revised Code of Washington, RCW 27.44, such activities are only Class C felonies, punishable by a maximum of $10,000 and five years in prison.

As far as De los Angeles and the Snoqualmie tribe are concerned, the penalty is not stiff enough. The former tribal chairman says he is trying to set up a series of meetings on the federal level to amend the Indian Graves Protection Act. He is also approaching state officials such as Allyson Brooks, director of the State Historic Preservation Office, asking them to make recommendations to the state Legislature to beef up the code. He says members of the Snoqualmie tribe would welcome the opportunity for a public hearing.

Now that the tribe has had some time to heal, there is hope that by getting the word out there will be a public reaction against such acts of sacrilege. If public opinion becomes strong enough, it may help decide the Legislature to take action to punish what amounts to commercial vandalism.

"There's a very strong business (in Indian artifacts and remains). There's a very strong black market that's in millions of dollars," De los Angeles says. "These kinds of situations happen all over the place, every day. I mean this is the 21st century and we're still talking about companies that spend thousands of dollars to send their employees to find these places they think might contain grave sites and valuables.

"What people do with the remains is giving me nightmares, thinking about it."

Whitlam confirmed that such plundering is often commercially run, but that its illegal nature makes it hard to determine exactly how much damage is done or what kind of markets are involved.