PORTLAND, Ore. - Back before settlers disrupted Indian control of the
Pacific Northwest, the tribes knew where the best spots for villages were.
A protected harbor site on the Juan de Fuca Strait was not to be missed.
Although today the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)
owns the 22-acre stretch of bayside land adjacent to the town of Port
Angeles on the southern side of the straight, the discovery of a village
site on the property -with carbon dating pegging occupation as early as
1,700 years ago - proves what ethnographers have long suspected. The
ancestors of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe maintained a permanent winter
village at this prime location for hundreds of years.
"It's unusual to have a site this old and also one that was continuously
occupied," owner of Larson Anthropological Archaeological Services (LAAS),
the firm that came on board last winter to help the tribe, Lynn Larson
said. "It's much more common to have a site dated at less than 1,000 years
when the tribes were more populous. This site will shed new light on the
ethnographic pattern of Northwest Coast Indians."
Her voice low with reverence, Lower Elwha Klallam Chairwoman Frances
Charles intoned the name of the village, "Tse-whit-zen."
"It was a year ago in August when we heard from WSDOT of something that
looked suspicious to one of the workers. It was a shell midden from when
they baked clams and oysters and mussels."
WSDOT is building pontoons at the site for the Hood Canal Bridge repair
project, a job that involves bulldozing almost the entire 22-acre parcel.
Piles of shells, of course, go with the territory of coastal tribes. Along
with halibut, salmon, rockfish, porpoises and whales, they took shellfish
including cockles, butter clams, mussels and oysters.
"We went down to view the discovery amid the construction," Charles
explained. "And the tribe put together a crew to monitor the project on a
daily basis because it was around that time that human remains were
beginning to be unearthed. We had found 25 complete remains by then."
According to Charles, WSDOT complied with federal and state law that
requires cultural resources management evaluations and monitoring of any
projects likely to disturb historic or archaeological sites. The firm
initially hired by the agency did not find any indication of the village or
its magnitude in the 50 test pits it drilled over the 22 acres. And once
the project was started, WSDOT was unwilling to halt work citing deadlines
on the bridge repair as well as the number of jobs it was providing for the
local economy. But the Lower Elwa Klallum appealed to the Governor's office
and got the work curtailed until LAAS wrote a treatment plan that, after
being reviewed by the tribe and a number of state and federal agencies, was
accepted in March.
"To date we have many more burials than we expected," Charles said. "Tribal
members have made 100 cedar boxes for reburial, and we are waiting until
the excavating is completed before we inter. We would like to acquire land
as close to what our ancestors thought was their final resting place as
possible and are in discussions with the Port and with landowners about the
acquisition of adjacent land for that purpose.
"We also have isolated remains that indicate burial sites were disturbed
when pipes for the former mills that occupied this site were laid into the
earth," Charles said. "We have even found remains on top of the pipes. That
part is the hardest. Seeing the evidence of how people desecrated the grave
sites. It brings back old wounds to our elders, people who in the 1920s
were basically kicked off their village. Now to see this is just
devastating. Not only for our elders but also for the young ones. It's been
really hard for us from the beginning. But a year ago it was just 25
people. Now we're into the 100s and still counting."
While the tribe has good reason to be sensitive to the disruption of burial
sites and the uncovering of human remains, Larson countered that two
separate burial patterns are found at the site and help explain why some
remains are isolated rather than intact.
"Some of the isolated finds are in shell midden deposits and they were
disturbed 1,000 years ago," Larson explained. "The later burials that we
see in the cemetery were largely not disturbed."
"The good side," Charles continued, "is that we are able to go back and
look at the artifacts our ancestors used. To hold in our hands the tools
they worked with. And the ceremonial stones. And to go back and look at the
time of the long houses. Where they lived. Still it doesn't take away the
pain of seeing how our ancestors were treated."
Charles also wishes that the construction was not proceeding apace even as
the tribe removes human remains and artifacts from the site surrounded by
the noise of heavy equipment, the upturned earth and the exposed human
"There aren't any laws that say a project has to stop after a site is
discovered and there's no precedent for that," Lynn Larson of LAAS said.
"My experience is that when you're doing data recovery in the middle of
construction, that's what you do. At the same time, WSDOT and the
contractor has given us good cooperation short of stopping the work all
And as Charles indicated, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe is benefiting in
some ways from the find. "We have identified four long houses, cedar sticks
that were used for fish-drying racks, and about 50 carved ceremonial rocks.
Each of the rocks has a different design and story depending on what they
were used for. One that looks like the rising sun was probably for birth.
And there are ones that were probably for marriage, death, and various
occasions during childhood and young adulthood."
"Over the past 15 weeks, Larson Archaeological Services has helped the
tribe excavate the site and it has eight weeks left to go. Lynn Larson,
explained, "We don't usually see sites this large or this old. Normally we
only get to see a small section, but since the WSDOT project requires that
they move earth over a 22-acre parcel, and the original village takes up
almost all of that land, we have an usually good opportunity to help the
Lower Elwha Klallam tribe recover the human remains and to reconstruct the
way in which this once major village functioned over time. The burials, of
course, are causing consternation, but the village site itself is a happy
occasion. The Lower Elwa Klallam will have a curation facility for managing
the artifacts from the project, and that is a jump start to a cultural
program that they don't have now."
The Lower Elwha Klallam could use a jump start. Although the tribe signed
the Point No Point Treaty of 1855 and forfeited 4,000 acres of land, it did
not gain federal recognition until 1968. At that time the tribe was awarded
327 acres of land known to be part of a flood plain. Since then the 750
enrolled members have accumulated a total of 965 acres. "They thought we
were going to go away," said Charles, "but we didn't."
Not only didn't the Lower Elwa Klallams fade away, with the discovery of
Tse-whit-zen they have solidified their connection to North Coast territory
and reminded the larger world of their connection to prime acreage at Port