The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has asked the state Department of Transportation to find a new location for a marine facility now being built in Port Angeles, making it increasingly...
The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has asked the state Department of Transportation to find a new location for a marine facility now being built in Port Angeles, making it increasingly likely that the state will have to stop construction after spending more than $50 million.
In a letter sent Friday to the state, the tribe requested that the state move the project from the Port Angeles site, where remains of hundreds of the tribe’s ancestors and remnants of an ancient Klallam village were inadvertently unearthed, because further construction would disturb more graves and destroy more of the tribe’s cultural heritage.
“It would be most difficult to continue the project with their opposition,” Gov. Gary Locke said Friday.
In addition, Locke said, “It is really unfortunate that so much money has been spent on the project, and that the experts didn’t detect the magnitude of this historic site at the beginning. But it is also an amazing archaeological find. Had everyone known the magnitude of the archaeological significance when this was first proposed and when the testing for the site was done, nobody would have gone forward with it.”
Locke said he was moved when he witnessed tribal members excavating the graves of their ancestors during an October visit. State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald and other Department of Transportation (DOT) staff, in an effort at healing, participated in a sacred tribal burning ceremony after the remains were first found.
An extraordinary find
Work has been under way at the Port Angeles site since August 2003. The state is building a dry dock there for construction of pontoons to replace the east half of the Hood Canal Bridge and, later, Seattle’s Highway 520 bridge.
Private consultants who were hired before construction to evaluate the suitability of the site found nothing of historic or archaeological value.
But state contractors later stumbled upon an extraordinary archaeological find: remnants of Tse-whit-zen, the largest prehistoric Indian village ever discovered in the state, and a tribal burial ground containing the bones of the tribe’s ancestors.
After remains were initially discovered at the site in 2003, the tribe worked with the state to help the project continue, even deploying its own members to help dig out their ancestors for reburial. The tribe asked the state to keep looking for further remains so those would not be entombed by construction. But the state resisted.
As more and more remains were discovered, the tribe decided it couldn’t go on.
“We knew no matter how we continued at the site we would continue to find our ancestors, and it would not be a few, it would be hundreds,” tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles said. “We came to the realization that enough was enough. Now we need to sit and discuss together about where to go from here, about how we can all be unified in the process.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who visited the site last month, said she is willing to study other options for the project. “Who among us could go and dig up their relatives?”
The village site is of value to the entire state and beyond, Cantwell said.
New round of talks
State, tribal and federal officials are expected to start talks on the future of the Port Angeles project this week. All sides say they want to stay out of court and reach a negotiated solution.
“We believe the project cannot go forward without the endorsement of the tribal council,” said MacDonald, the state transportation secretary. “I believe that if the tribal council says this project must stop, public sentiment would not allow us to proceed.”
Paramount, MacDonald said, is achieving a sense of reconciliation.
“I am less invested at the moment in whether we stay or go, than in continuing a process in which people have brought integrity to what is a terribly difficult situation,” he said. “I want people to come to an agreement, and if that is that we leave, we will face that then. If the agreement is that we stay, we have to agree on what that means.”
If the dry dock has to be moved from Port Angeles, that will create new headaches and new expenses for the Hood Canal Bridge project.
The east half of the bridge is near the end of its structural life, and in urgent need of replacement. The replacement, paid for with federal and state funds, is already a year behind schedule.
Finding alternative places to build the pontoons would be difficult.
Federal agencies wanted to avoid storing them in open water because the pontoons would cast shade on habitat used by salmon listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Federal reviewers agreed with the DOT that the Port Angeles site was where the work could be done most efficiently, with the least harm and the least complications.
Or so it seemed. As of Friday, more than 300 intact skeletons had been disturbed, 785 bone fragments dug up, and more than 10,000 artifacts recovered at the site. Portions of the village are more than 1,700 years old.
When the first remains were discovered in August 2003, work stopped. All sides then negotiated an agreement, signed in March, that allowed work to proceed as long as the tribe’s remains were recovered and a percentage of the site sampled for artifacts. The tribe also was paid $3 million to buy new cemetery lands.
Council members today say they thought only about 25 graves would be disturbed if they allowed the project to continue. As the size and importance of the archaeological site became clear, the tribe began asking the state in May to renegotiate the agreement.
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Work at the site has proceeded under the original agreement, which the state has argued supercedes Washington’s cemetery law a finding the tribe contests. But with its signature, the state contends, the tribe lost its right to sue.
The state has contended the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act doesn’t apply to the site because it is on state, not tribal or federal, land.
State, tribal and federal officials are expected to start talks this week.
In Port Angeles, where officials campaigned hard for the project and the jobs it brings, sentiments are mixed.
“I know there are a lot of different opinions in town,” said Gary Braun, deputy mayor.
“But I suppose if it was our ancestry there and we were asked to remove them … that is fundamental, it really is,” he said. “There was great anticipation for that economic development and also for the replacement of the bridge itself. It’s very difficult for people. But by the same token, I would hope we will do the right thing.”
Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, House majority leader, said she hopes the state can still use the Port Angeles site. “I’m terribly conflicted on all this. I honor the tribe and their history, but I still think compromise should be reached at that site. We have dumped a lot of money in there, and we are knocking on heaven’s door with that bridge.”
To tribal elders, moving the project is imperative. Their views were important as the tribe made up its mind, and will continue to guide the tribe through negotiations.
“I think they should put it back the way it was as best they can, level it off and put a monument there,” said Adeline Smith, 86. “They should just respect the cemetery and leave it alone.”
Bea Charles, 85, said repairing the bridge is important, but she wants the tribe’s sacred ground protected. “I want them to stop. I want them to find another place. This isn’t the only place. Sure, that bridge is important; it’s important to me too. But not at the expense of our ancestors.”
Controversy about the project is building. Petitions urging that the project be moved have gained more than 1,000 signatures. And at the annual Centennial Accord meeting with Locke, held last week, tribes from around the state stood in support of the Lower Elwha tribe and voiced their anguish.
“What better reason is there to relocate than to stop digging up people?” said Mel Tonasket, vice chairman of the business council of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
Meanwhile, limited construction work continued at the site last week, and more skeletal remains were removed.
With a lighted candle, Mary Anne Thomas, a spiritual adviser to the tribe, led a procession of tribal members carrying yet another cedar box with the bones of their ancestors. The bones were wrapped in a white blanket, along with a piece of sacred red ochre found buried with them. They put the box in temporary storage, inside a construction trailer.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com