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...

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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.”

Tribe’s letter to the state

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe Chairwoman Frances Charles’ letter to State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald:

Dear Doug:

Following our recent discussions, I confirm that the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe strongly urges WSDOT to find a new site for the Graving Dock project. We continue to support the Hood Canal Bridge reconstruction project, but we are now convinced that a new site or approach must be found to construct the bridge pontoons and anchors. I want to convey my thanks to you for earnestly seeking the Tribe’s position on this and for being open to a reconsideration of the direction of this project.

As you know, from the beginning this has been a difficult, and even painful, subject for our Tribe. We have already suffered damage to ancestral remains and losses of historic properties, and it has become clear that – no matter how hard we all worked at it — the current construction cannot be sustained without additional destruction of burials and remains of our ancestors.

We know that you and your colleagues at WSDOT have made every effort, and are willing to continue to make efforts, to save our burials. However, recent events have made it clear that this will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to accomplish — not because of anyone’s lack of willingness to try but because of the physical problems involved. We have been united with WSDOT in trying to make this project work, because we have shared WSDOT’s vision that our state, and especially our region, urgently needs a restored Hood Canal Bridge. We now hope to remain united with WSDOT in finding a different approach to accomplish that worthy goal.

Going forward, I hope that you and others from WSDOT will join the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe — and other dedicated state officials, federal officials and other stakeholders – in helping to find an appropriate use for the 22.5-acre graving dock site.

The year 2004 is historic because it marks the opening in Washington, D.C., of the National Museum of the American Indian. It would be tragic if a few months after that museum is opened we in Washington state did not do all we could to protect a site like Tze-whit-sen, with all its cultural significance for Native Americans in this region.

For our part, we will continue to support your efforts, and those of WSDOT, to move forward with the bridge rehabilitation project. This project remains a high priority for our Tribe and it should be pursued without delay.

Sincerely yours,
Frances Charles

This is no ordinary land-use dispute.

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.”

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles, at left in center of circle, addresses tribal workers helping to sift soils for artifacts and recover human remains Dec. 3 at Tse-whit-zen, the tribal village inadvertently unearthed by the state project.

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.

Hood Canal Bridge project

The eastern half of the bridge is nearing the end of its useful life and is being replaced.

Fourteen new pontoons must be built and three refurbished. The new pontoons were to be built at the Port Angeles site, basically an onshore pit with a sea gate. Once built, the pontoons could be floated and then towed into place for bridge assembly.

The state began planning the project in 1997. Originally budgeted at $204 million, costs have escalated with the discovery of the village and burial ground at the site.

The bridge carries as many as 18,000 cars a day. It opened in 1961; its west half failed and sank during a storm in 1979. It was rebuilt and opened to traffic in October 1982.

Source: Washington State Department of Transportation

Other sites initially studied were deemed too small, because the project required building the pontoons in batches and storing them outside the facility in open water before floating them into place at the bridge.

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.

Mary Anne Thomas, far right, carries a candle as, from left, tribal members Michael Q. Langland, Otto Ditlefsen and Alex Stevenson carry remains of their ancestors from the construction site.

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.

“Terribly conflicted”

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.”

Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald, left, and Gov. Gary Locke confer Thursday after an emotional meeting with tribal officials over the future of a construction project in Port Angeles, where an ancient Klallam village and burial ground were inadvertently unearthed.

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