PORT GAMBLE, Kitsap County — Darlene Anderson Peters would wear only her finest regalia to be in the presence of her ancestors: a chief’s robe, more than three years in the making.

Its long silky fringe swung through the salal and ferns as the Port Gamble S’Klallam elder explained the meaning of this simple cemetery in the woods.

Killer whales carved atop a headstone cavorted in moss grown thick on the grave of Chief Joseph Anderson, born in 1895. By the time of his death in 1937 he would see the families of S’Klallam people removed from the place that was always their home on the clear salt waters of Port Gamble Bay — and adapting new ways in order to survive.

After more than a century, the cemetery is back in S’Klallam hands, part of a larger circle of history, as descendants of the ancestors displaced by the Pope & Talbot lumber mill in 1853 work with successors of the timber company to heal their relationship, and this place.

Returning the cemetery in 2016 to S’Klallam ownership was just the beginning: The tribe has since bought back more than 900 acres from Pope Resources, and last summer, sealed the deal on the purchase of development rights on part of the former mill site that displaced their ancestral village.

The latest deal is more than a conservation easement transaction. It’s part of a growing movement in which tribes are regaining control or ownership of their ancestral lands.

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Small, personal acts also are helping to mend what it means today to be neighbors.

Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, remembers former Pope Resources CEO Tom Ringo, now retired, starting to spend time with the tribe, showing up to share meals. “He wanted to learn our culture,” Sullivan said.

He remembered the day Ringo joined the throng on the beach as Native people from all over the region gathered for a stop on the annual canoe journey at Port Gamble.

“Seeing that big tall redheaded dude walking through all the Indians, it was awesome,” Sullivan said.

A tribe returns

When the newcomers first came wanting their land, the S’Klallam people then numbering in the hundreds, told them to leave. But after smallpox and other diseases diminished their numbers to only dozens, the newcomers came back. This time, they stayed, and it was the S’Klallam people that were sent away, across the water to Point Julia.

The company took the prime waterfront where the S’Klallam people enjoyed their sheltered village site, tucked out of the wind, right where the good fishing was, and where they could watch for the approach of enemies from the north.

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As the changes relentlessly came, the cemetery near Hansville, Kitsap County, is testimony to the determination of Chief Anderson and other S’Klallam people who refused to be pushed away from their traditional territory, said Anderson’s grandson, Loren Anderson, 69.

Like so many S’Klallam men, his grandfather would canoe across the bay to work in the Pope & Talbot lumber mill that displaced them.

While the newcomers wanted the S’Klallam peoples’ land, they also needed their labor.

The ancestors of today’s Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe were the first to go to work in the mill when it opened in 1853 and they were the last to leave when the company shut it down in 1995. Removed in 1997 after a fire burned down what was left of the structure, it was the longest continuously operating lumber mill in the U.S., shipping forest products all over the globe.

When the last whistle blew, all those years of operation left a prodigious mess to clean up in the water and on the land. And that wasn’t all.

After the tribe in 2010 shot down the company’s initial plans to redevelop the land in and around Port Gamble with an ambitious housing development, the company realized its relationship with its longest neighbors needed healing as well.

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One of the first steps Pope Resources, the successor to Pope & Talbot, took was returning the cemetery — which could not by county law be logged anyway — to the tribe. “We said, let’s get together with some elders and go find it; we’ll give it back,” said David Nunes, former president and CEO of Pope Resources and now CEO of Rayonier, the international forestry and real estate investment trust that acquired Pope in 2020.

“In our hearts and spirits, we never thought it was gone,” Anderson Peters said of the cemetery. But it felt good and right to no longer be on what the law regarded as someone else’s property when they visited their ancestors, Loren Anderson said.

Then, last August, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and Rayonier announced the tribe bought the development rights for $3.9 million on 18.4 acres on the former mill site. The conservation easement purchased by the tribe restricts development and will allow public access to portions of the waterfront site. Raydient, Rayonier’s development subsidiary, still owns the land.

Funding for the purchase came from a variety of conservation programs administered by the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Actions are underway across Washington to rectify the history of stolen lands, broken treaties and the violence of colonization. Deals are taking every shape and size, from returning the 2-acre cemetery to a sweeping so-called Land Back transaction spearheaded by Conservation Northwest.

The nonprofit raised $4.6 million from private donors and NGOs to return more than 9,200 acres to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation last October.

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The property is a crucial wildlife corridor in north central Washington, and its return is good not only for conservation, but helps redress a bit of historic injustice. The land is part of the north half of tribes’ original reservation, which was taken back by an act of Congress in 1892 after the discovery of gold in the area. The tribe lost a quarter of its territory, including possession of Kettle Falls, then one of the world’s great salmon fisheries later destroyed with the building of Grand Coulee Dam.

Healing the land and water

Today, the shore at Port Gamble where the mill used to be is a scarified landscape awaiting its next chapter.

On a recent visit, Sullivan, the tribe’s chairman, walked the ground where his ancestors once lived. “There is shell midden over here,” he said, referring to the mix of broken bone and shell left from cooking fires hundreds and thousands of years ago.

The village here had been in use for millennia. “We found a lot of 5,000-year-old artifacts, 2,000-year-old artifacts, whale bones,” Sullivan said.

Moving across the water to Point Julia was a hardship. The company built colonial style homes on the beach where the families were exposed to harsh winters. They could see the highest tides rise through their floor boards.

The mill’s whistle set the hours of the day. The wages and steady work there may actually have helped the tribe stay together, Sullivan said, drawn by the work, instead of scattering with the arrival of the newcomers.

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Families persisted as a community, eventually gaining federal recognition, formalizing the government-to-government relationship promised to their treaty signers. The tribe in the 1940s slowly amassed land for housing and government buildings on the uplands above Point Julia.

Sullivan can point to the house there where he grew up — where his father rose daily to work for the mill for 33 years, leaving his job as a skilled sawyer only when the company shut the mill down.

With the site scraped bare, it’s hard to remember today the presence of a mill that filled ships with lumber milled from the lush old-growth forests that once cloaked the hillsides all the way to the water.

“All of this was full of lumber. All of it. There was times the whole bay was filled with logs,” Sullivan said.

Cleanup continues

An in-water cleanup at the former mill site targeting creosote, cadmium, mercury, petroleum hydrocarbons, dioxins, and more began in September 2015, and was completed in January 2017, according to the state Department of Ecology, the lead agency on the work.

Removed were 8,592 creosoted pilings; 110,537 cubic yards of wood waste and contaminated sediment; and 56,500 square feet of derelict overwater structures. Some 224,091 tons of clean cap material and 113,342 cubic yards of clean sand were placed on the sediments to aid recovery. About 3,485 linear feet of shoreline were improved. In all, 106 acres were cleaned up, at a cost to Pope Resources of more than $20 million.

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Next up for Pope is addressing the remaining contamination on the mill site and uplands.

A range of options is under consideration for the north side of the mill site beyond the conservation easement, said Adrian Miller, director of government affairs for Rayonier’s land holdings in the Northwest.

Formerly with Pope, he laughs, remembering how tense times were with the tribe, especially after the tribe in 2010 killed the company’s original plan for the extensive real estate development called the String of Pearls for some 7,000 acres of land in and around Port Gamble.

Job one after that, Miller said, to get back on track, was just trying to get past dynamics so toxic the mindset was, “No. Now what was the question?”

As Pope listened, the company learned. The tribe wanted land back. The company sold it to them: 937 acres adjacent to its reservation boundaries, adding crucial pieces to the tribe’s land base. The deal was part of a historic 2019 agreement that includes allowing the tribe exclusive rights to harvest shellfish from company-owned tidelands.

The tribe also agreed to work with the company, Kitsap County, other tribes and the North Kitsap community for redevelopment and restoration of Port Gamble.

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Sullivan has a wary optimism as the tribe and the timber company go forward, with much yet undecided for this landscape. But at least they are talking.

It took five years of professional mediation to get there, and a lot of time and commitment to stick with it even after some long walkaways when things got stuck — at one point, for nine months.

Anderson Peters also credits the ancestors, the Strong People, who kept the families together in those first 100 years, to become the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe of today, with some 1,200 members.

“We should never forget them, they carried the spirit and the culture, the ones that have passed, we should never forget them. They kept us alive,” Anderson Peters said.

“The young ones today, they are floating around on the cream. Sometimes people were hungry. People forget that.”

The one thing the tribe was never going to do, she said, was disappear.

“It is hard to keep down a strong spirit,” she said of her ancestors. “I can feel them singing inside me.”