The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe's journey of discovery, both painful and healing
When the Washington State Department of Transportation unearthed human remains at the construction site of a dry dock on the Port Angeles waterfront, it set in motion a journey of discovery, controversy and ultimately of healing for the people of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. In the end, the state gave up, for the first time ever, a major project to help the Indians reclaim their lost people and their heritage.
"I feel honored to be here with them"
"They don't like to bring up the past ..."
"Because I cried ... digging up people"
In August, 2003, contractors building a dry dock on the Port Angeles waterfront for the state Department of Transportation inadvertently unearthed one of the largest, oldest Indian villages ever found in the Pacific Northwest. Within days, the first of many human remains were disturbed, beginning a controversy that would engulf this town, and this region, for years.
More than 300 intact burials were unearthed, and some 10,000 artifacts recovered from the site before the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe asked the department to find another place for its project. The state agreed in December 2004, walking away from some $90 million in public funds spent at the site. It was a decision unprecedented in this state, and in Port Angeles, where nothing had ever been stopped for anything Indian. "Maybe they'll believe it, finally," tribal elder Bea Charles said at the time. "That we were here. And we're still here."
"Breaking Ground," by Seattle Times reporter Lynda V. Mapes, who covered the story for the paper as it unfolded, was published by the University of Washington Press in April. Excerpts from the book, which includes more than 100 photos, follow.
After the initial discovery of human remains at the site, work was shut down to determine the extent and location of archaeological material — and more human remains. For tribal members, the survey proved a painful discovery of an unreconciled history.
It was midmorning on Sept. 21, 2003, when excavators doing a second archaeological survey dug up the human skull, its eye sockets staring up from the backfill of an old utility trench. For tribal members assisting in this second, much more extensive archaeological exploration following the initial finds, the sight was a punch to the stomach. Then they found more bones: The remains of six of the tribe's ancestors, including an infant, shoved aside like so much trash.
To Arlene Wheeler, who accompanied the archaeologists and other specialists digging the trenches, the ancestors were speaking again. "They are going to wake up not only our own people, but Port Angeles that have been desecrating my people for a hundred years," Wheeler said. Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles, also helping with the new survey, wondered how to explain to tribal members watching not only the bones shattered and tossed back in the ditch during the first round of construction, in 1911. But how to explain the bone fragments amid coaxial cable, adjacent to a concrete pipeline with rubber gaskets, and a 1977 Pepsi-Cola can directly beneath the conduit.
"The hardest thing I still carry is looking at the young ones, who were looking at the burials in the pipes, and looking at their expression: How can someone do that to another human being, and having to explain to them that Indians weren't considered human, and it was not so long ago," Charles said.
"That was the hardest thing, it was tearing everyone up inside." Charles kept a stoical expression down at the site. "You knew if you fell apart, everyone would fall apart. You had to be real strong with them face-to-face, and then go off and do your crying. They were so young, and a lot of those burials, especially the infants and the babies, you could see the anger, you would sense the confusion, the disappointment and the frustration, and then they would look at someone (on the department's construction crew) and want to pounce on them: 'How could you do this to our people?' Knowing it wasn't their fault. But it really did bother them and get them angry."
The project restarted in the spring of 2004, with tribal members working alongside archaeologists. In this excerpt, tribal members reflect on the work, which was like no ordinary construction job.
It was the first time any tribal members had worked at an archaeological site — and going into it, most didn't like the idea of archaeology. "I couldn't tell a rock from a bone, I didn't know anything," said Michael Q. Langland, a tribal member whose prior jobs included working in the tribe's river-restoration program; at the tribe's fish hatchery; selling beads; working as a welfare caseload manager; a truck driver and a forklift operator. "I had never used a trowel, I had never done that kind of work. Basically, my impression of them was they just robbed graves. I had no idea what they did.
"They had us measure off an area into a block and we would dig. There I am, a 50-year-old man on my hands and knees." Langland figured out a way to work that blended their science and his culture. "I would go to a certain spot and say a prayer every morning to my ancestors for allowing me to be on their land, our land, and that whatever it was I was doing, it wasn't out of disrespect and to protect me from anything evil," Langland said. "I never, ever took it for granted; it was an honor to be there. I know it changed my life, the way I look at everything, the way I perceive myself."
. . . He sometimes felt guided by intuition to what he found. "I had dreams that I could not interpret at first, but they were very powerful; it was the ancestors' way of thanking me for what I was doing," Langland said. "We had been digging in the same spot for a while and got to an area where we thought everything had been depleted, and we were going to do one last pass. I was standing off to the side and looked into this big mound, where the excavator was putting the soil, and something just caught my eye. It was almost like someone guided me there, it wasn't that there was any reason to look there. I started troweling around, I didn't know how fragile it would be, and the color of the soil was an indicator, too, it was very black. I exposed it a little more. Then I pulled it out with my hand, it was just caked. With a lot of work, I tapped it clean with a cedar tool. It was an 8-point barbed harpoon point, 10 inches long. I held it up and did a little dance. When you would find something really cool, you would go around and show it to everyone."
And he found more than his ancestors' tools and belongings at the site. "I saw my grandfather down there, I saw other ancestors, I heard voices, heard songs. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it was very spiritual. When you have things like that happen to you, it is going to change your life. I took this very seriously. I think I am more patient, loving, caring, considerate. . . . I am more in touch with my culture now. It humbled the hell out of me. It was a very spiritual experience, very healing. Peace. That is what I found."
As the ground slowly revealed its secrets, elders, for years silenced about their own cultural knowledge, also began to share what they knew. For the first time, elder Johnson Charles Jr. got out a family photograph of his father, born in the last smokehouse along the Elwha River. Johnson hung the photo of his father, wearing the paint of a blackface dancer, on his living-room wall.
"I was really surprised when he brought that out," Chairman Frances Charles said. "Generations had been told it was evil. They were told there was a generation that turned bad. That the medicine men were paid to harm people. We were told we were wrong, we didn't do the ceremonies and the dances. That we didn't wear the paint. The elders were told not to talk about it anymore. Some were burned on their hands, or whipped. As time itself has showed it on the site, some of the elders started slowly sharing with us what their grandparents did, and the things they were told not to talk about. And they would just sit there and cry.
"Even within ourselves, you had some that didn't have the teachings. They didn't believe. They were apples, is what we call them. Red on the outside. White on the inside. They were not to think of themselves as native, because in order to be thinking Indian, you need to be living Indian. A lot of them won't eat fish or elk or deer, they would rather eat a burger and fries; you see the gaps in the generations. There was that big time lapse when there was no culture and no teachings. The ancestors stood up for us; they are the ones who showed us, we did have these practices, we used these medicines."
In this excerpt, tribal members talk about sensing their feelings shift from enthusiasm as they work at the site, to unease as they discover what they believe is a smallpox grave and more human remains.
"When I first started I was really excited," said tribal member Teresa Sanders. "I didn't know anything about my culture at all. My mom was white and my dad's Indian, so when we were kids my mom wouldn't let us live on the reservation. She kept us more or less separated from anything tribal." Sanders, with bright blond hair and blue eyes, took a lot of guff. "People would say I was the milk man's baby; I hated it," Sanders said. "And when I'd go to the tribal functions I wouldn't expect people to accept me. When I started working at the graving yard I was so honored they would trust me with that."
She found herself getting angry. "I learned more and more about my people, what they did to them; they took their land, their language. And all the things that were not given to me, and a lot of children, because their parents didn't talk about their culture, either, because it was painful. It changed who I am, my whole life is in a different direction now. It started out as a job, but all these artifacts, that's all I think about any more. We are looking back on the past to find out the answers they already had. . . . I want it to keep going. We can take back what was taken from us."
Sanders worked over on the west end of the site, where workers encountered the grave with more than 100 burials in an area the size of a single car garage. It was the way people were buried — in sand, on top of each other, right next to each other — that made tribal members think it was a smallpox grave. That the living had to work quickly to bury so many dead, to protect themselves and their families.
"So many of those burials, you looked at them and saw so much sorrow, it came off them. That was what affected me the most, all the sadness," Sanders said. "It takes so long, you are on your side, brushing on the bones . . . You are taking in so much hurt."
The growing number of burials unearthed as the construction job continued shocked everyone. Ten, then 20. Then 100, then 200, 300. More.
"At first we were saving them from being disturbed, getting them out of the path of that bulldozer," said Wendy Sampson, a language instructor for the tribe who worked at the site digging burials. "I was really excited to work down there. It was a brand new experience, it was a big wave, and I wanted to get into it. It was proof, there it is, look at this, it's not just a story anymore. . . . We have been talking about this and telling people for a long time, and no one listened. There has not been a lot of recognition, we were overlooked. Now the entire world has proof. Listen next time." But as she kept digging graves, she grew uneasy.
"It wasn't until I was talking with my elders and I realized how they felt about it, how disgusted they were, and there I am, I'm digging graves, too," Sampson said. "We are down there voluntarily, getting paid, I'm sitting there picking the flesh off somebody's bones, and with the elders being so mad about it. Then it was, that's what we are doing. One more disturbance. It makes me cry to think I'm the one down there, picking the flesh off these bones, breaking bones one at a time and putting them in a box.
"Why do we have to be doing that? And there I am with my little wooden pick, I'm down there, getting paid. Digging graves. I don't know who said it, but it was really true: It was a funeral every day. I cried, digging up people. And our elders would say, 'We would rather you be down there doing it, because you are going to do it with care and tenderness.' Better than with a machine, going 15 feet before it stops."
She kept a journal of her work at the site, writing the Klallam words for what she was finding: Rock (s? ánt'), shell (k? á???nor), hearth (sèq? a? cáy?), wedge (wíè), bone (sc? úm?), skull (sc? a? me? q?), rib (y? ìk? xò), ancestor (sèiyú? is).
"But they didn't have a word for digging up people," Sampson said. "That just didn't happen."
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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