OLYMPIA — It is a Spartan setting, the lab where 120 cardboard filing boxes — each with human bones in them, many of them old Native American bones — fill the eight large metal lockers along the walls.
They are awaiting reburial, back to the land where they had spent all those years undisturbed.
In this rather worn building, one of those concrete government places waiting to be torn down, Guy Tasa is at work.
He is the state’s physical anthropologist, a job created in 2008 when the Legislature passed laws concerning the inadvertent discovery of human remains.
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He says about the bones in all those boxes: “They represent the remains of somebody who’s come before us hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago. And they deserve all of the respect and treatment we give anybody today.”
About 50 times a year, Tasa deals with bones found when somebody out in the countryside — often along our coastal areas or around the Columbia River where tribes lived — is putting in a septic tank or building a home.
By state law, the whole project stops when a contractor scoops up dirt and finds a skull, or maybe a femur.
That means the tribes have to be contacted about what they want to do with the bones — take them to a tribal grave, or rebury them right at the site — even if it means reburying them next to a septic tank.
Mostly, Tasa deals with homeowners, and sometimes local governments.
He is a low-key scientist who carefully navigates the task between a property owner and the various tribes who want to ensure the sanctity of the remains of their ancestor.
“I don’t recall people yelling at me,” he says. “Of course, I’m 6-3, 225 pounds.”
For some homeowners who find historical bones, it can get expensive, if they bought property knowing in advance it was near an ancient burial site.
Ed Arthur is one of two owners of Caldera Archaeology, a Bellingham consulting firm that says it will keep “your project moving” while complying with various regulations.
One of his current jobs is for a beachside home on Camano Island where the owner wants to put in a septic tank.
“It’s more or less where there was a 2,000-year-old village site,” Arthur says.
Depending on what is found at a historic site, he says, “There are definitely costs associated; if you’re lucky, 3 grand. It could be $25,000 if you’re bound and determined to put in a septic tank.”
The state has a fund to help defray a homeowner’s costs for reinterment if a project has started, bones are found but the remains are deemed to be “inadvertently discovered.”
Since 2008, when the law was passed, it’s paid out $105,000 to help five property owners.
Ron Moore, of Vancouver, B.C., was paid $23,000 from the fund. His family had bought vacation lots in Point Roberts, the unique piece of land that, although not an island, is not physically connected to the mainland U.S.
In 2004, after having a contractor dig a large hole for where the house was going to be built, Moore says, he was told that tribal bones were found and a stop-work order issued.
“I didn’t see bones; there was shells,” he says.
He says that back then — he can’t remember the details — he was quoted a price of around $70,000 to $80,000 for the necessary archaeological work. Moore says that was too much and he stopped work on the house for some eight to nine years.
Finally, says Moore, he got a $23,000 quote for the archaeological work, and also by then the law had changed so he could be reimbursed by the state.
He is not happy about all those years with a hole in the middle of his property.
“I think the biggest bone they found was a half a finger bone,” he says.
Moore says Lummi Nation representatives had a ceremony and buried the bones under his front deck.
The fund came into existence because the state doesn’t want property owners to just cover up the bones. It’s a misdemeanor if you don’t report finding bones, and a felony if you continue knowingly excavating without a permit.
John McCoy, a Tulalip Tribes member who is serving his sixth term as a state representative, was instrumental in pushing through the law. Of those who wonder about the effort expended in dealing with tribal remains, McCoy says, “They are people who have no culture. They have no history in their lives. It’s extremely important to treat our remains with respect.”
An example of how making sure respect is shown is what happened Aug. 23 when Dave Salmon, 73, had a contractor dig a big hole and put in two new 1,000-gallon septic tanks at his Diamond Point beachfront summer home in Sequim.
As the dirt was going back into the hole, a skull popped up.
The sheriff came, took a photo of the skull and sent it to Kathy Taylor, the forensic anthropologist with the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. She’s the one who gets called about whether the find involved a crime.
“Context is huge. If it’s a shallow grave, with clothing present, fillings present, it’s obviously not archaeological,” she says.
With some tribes, women carried babies on flat wood boards — “their version of a backpack, or frontpack,” says Taylor. The cradleboarding resulted in the flattening of the skull in an infant.
There are other obvious signs that bones are from a Native American from centuries ago.
“Uniformly flat wear on the teeth. They had a lot of grit in their diet, and obviously they didn’t go to the dentists,” says Taylor.
She determined the skull was from tribal remains.
And so the bureaucratic process began and Guy Tasa was called in.
At first, it involved using large mesh archaeological screens to sift through 30 cubic yards of dirt.
“It’s not very delicate,” says Tasa. “We’re simply screening the dirt for bones that already have been disturbed.”
Tasa figures that about half of the skeleton was recovered, a young female, judging from the pelvis and where the muscles attached to the cranium — less pronounced than in a male.
A crew of four from the state, including Tasa, as well as a couple from the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office and Gideon Cauffman, the cultural-resources specialist for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe that’s headquartered at Sequim, spent 2½ days screening the dirt.
Dave Salmon took it in stride, although it’d be six weeks until the bones — the skull, leg bones and pelvis — were properly dealt with.
On the plus side, he didn’t get charged for all that dirt sifting.
“I’m not happy it got delayed,” he says about his septic project. “But that’s the way it goes.”
Anyway, says Salmon, he wanted the finding reported, just in case it did involve a crime.
“We’ve had six or eight missing persons in this county,” he says.
On Oct. 9, Tasa drove up from Olympia with the box of bones.
Cauffman was there, as was Patrick Adams, spiritual leader for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, and Marie Hebert, cultural-resources director for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.
Salmon wasn’t there, as he and his wife were on a cruise.
Right by the septic tanks, Cauffman had dug a grave about 3 feet deep and 5 feet long.
“It’s tough, next to a septic tank,” he says about the grave’s location. “It’s not the most glamorous of burials. But the remains we had were going to be reunited with those already in the ground.”
The bones in the cardboard box were wrapped in white linen and placed inside a small cedar box.
Adams then took some dry sage leaves, placed them on an abalone shell and lit them. He took a feather and let the smoke waft over those around the grave and onto the cedar box, in a cleansing ritual.
Then Adams prayed.
Cauffman remembers, “I felt as if I had this huge weight lifted off my shoulders. The ancestral remains were going to be at peace and go back into the earth.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org