Lower Elwha tribal members Monday began reburying the remains of more than 300 ancestors unearthed during a state construction project on the Port Angeles waterfront.

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PORT ANGELES — With prayer and song, Lower Elwha tribal members at daybreak Monday began reburying the remains of more than 300 ancestors unearthed during a state construction project on the Port Angeles waterfront.

Tribal members had waited five years to return their ancestors’ remains to sacred ground, inadvertently disturbed when the state Department of Transportation sited a large construction project atop Tse-whit-zen, one of the largest and oldest Indian villages in Washington, including an extensive burial ground.

After spending more than $70 million, the state walked away from its construction of the dry-dock site in December 2004 at the request of the tribe.

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The state went on to build components needed to repair the Hood Canal Bridge at an existing dry dock in Tacoma.

Now, as their ancestors’ bones are returned to their burial ground, perhaps healing can finally begin, tribal members said Monday.

“It’s really hard to express our emotions at this point in time. We are still in mourning,” said Lower Elwha Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles.

“But it is good to see some of the smiles come back to our community members knowing the heaviness is lifted off.”

Mass grave prepared

A full moon was setting in the west, and dawn painted the sky tangerine as gravediggers began moving cedar boxes holding the remains into a mass grave prepared at the site.

It was near the same place on the site where, during the state’s construction project, workers in 2003 had disturbed what appeared to be a hastily prepared grave that may have been used when a smallpox epidemic swept through the village.

Portions of the village date back 2,700 years.

The skeletal remains were stored in handmade cedar boxes in a World War II-era bunker on the reservation until they could be reburied.

With the sound of a single hand bell, soft song and prayer, pallbearers laid the boxes containing their ancestors’ remains side by side, facing east to the rising sun.

A cloud of seagulls lifted from the Strait of Juan de Fuca and a doe and fawn picked their way across the site while diggers worked. The morning air was so still, burning candles held by spiritual workers did not flicker.

As Port Angeles awoke, the industrial waterfront soon rumbled to life. Log loaders growled next door as the neighboring pulp mill chuffed with steam.

Longhouse to be built?

The tribe’s sacred ground was returned as part of a settlement agreement with the state in 2006. It is intended to remain a cemetery. The tribe hopes that one day a longhouse and museum will be built nearby.

Preparation for the reburial got under way Saturday, with prayers, songs and a gathering of spiritual workers, many of them traveling from Canada to help.

Work continued at the bunker into Sunday night, with tribal members organizing the boxes to ensure that the remains would be reburied as much as possible as they had originally been found, with families and couples reburied together.

“These last couple days I have been crying a lot. We feel their pain, of being taken out of the ground. They are disturbed, not resting,” said tribal member Arlene Wheeler. “Putting them back is going to bring a lot of peace, and a lot of healing, just knowing they are at rest again.”

Carmen Watson Charles had worked alongside other tribal members during the dry-dock project, pulling the bones from the path of construction.

“We all bleed, we all have red blood, emotions and feelings, it’s learning that everyone’s different and yet the same,” she said. “Unity and respect for one another — that’s what I hope is learned from this.”

Back again today

As the sun rose higher, work quickened so people could leave the burying grounds by noon, in keeping with spiritual teaching.

After smoothing the earth over more than 100 cedar boxes, tribal members left a green cedar wreath behind to mark the fresh grave for their loved ones, decorated with roses woven from cedar bark and tiny, carved cedar canoe paddles.

They would be back again at dawn today, with more than 200 boxes yet to be buried.

“It is going to be a challenge for the forgiveness within ourselves, there is so much hurt and anger,” Charles said. “But we know we need to keep looking forward, and not in the past.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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