Ancestral bone fragments of Lower Elwha Klallam still stir emotions

By Tom Callis
Port Angeles, Washington (AP) 8-09

For the Lower Elwha Klallam tribal members who have, or still are, working at the site of their ancestral village of Tse-whit-zen, the memory of unearthing 335 intact burials in 2003 and 2004 is fresh in their minds.

And five years later, finding bones or bone fragments, known as isolates, of their ancestors at the site doesn’t get much easier for them.

Since the tribe began using a mechanical sifter last month to search for artifacts and isolates through the remaining piles of soil that were dug from the ground during construction of what was to be a state Department of Transportation “graving yard” – a large dry-dock facility – bones, but no intact burials have been found daily.

Once intact, the burials are believed to have been broken apart during more than 100 years of industrial activity, including during construction of the graving yard, which was intended to build replacement components for renovation of the Hood Canal Bridge.

Construction of the graving yard was abandoned in December 2004 after the intact burials and 64,793 artifacts were uncovered.

The Hood Canal Bridge work was transferred to a graving yard in Tacoma and was finally completed in June. The move cost more than $100 million.

“I know they get frustrated at times,” said Lower Elwha Klallam Chairwoman Frances Charles, referring to the eight tribal workers at the site that are still finding the isolates.

“They don’t like seeing some of the things that we are witnessing from the past.”

Carmen Watson-Charles, 28, said she and other tribal members working at the site are always saddened when bones are found.


They wish they could have prevented the burials from being broken apart when the soil was removed about five and six years ago, said the former cultural resources liaison for the tribe.

“You’re in prayer when you see stuff like that,” she said.

“I just quiet myself so I’m present for that ancestor’s human remains there.

“We have to learn to be present for that ancestor.”

A veteran of the tribe’s effort to save artifacts and burials during construction of the graving yard, Watson-Charles returned to work on the site recently to help catalog and bag the artifacts for future generations to learn.

“I’m just glad to be back here with our ancestors and relations,” she said.

But Watson-Charles said that finding bones or their fragments is easier than finding intact skeletons, done painfully and repeatedly during construction of the graving yard.

“I had to do a lot of healing, spiritually, emotionally, physically to not carry that sadness, because we’re not supposed to carry that kind of sadness with us,” she said.

Like other tribal members working at the site, Watson-Charles smears ochre under her eyes and on her wrists to protect herself from the spirits that they believe reside among the burials and isolates.

Tribal members believe they can come into contact with those spirits while handling bones, she said.

Charles said that isolates will be reburied in cedar boxes.

The tribe has five, which have not been filled yet.

While the bones will all be reburied, the artifacts will be on display in a museum that is planned for the property.

Charles said that if any burials are unearthed during the future construction of a museum of the site, which may occur around 2012, that work will stop immediately.

So far, the museum lacks a design, and the tribe needs more funding to begin construction.

The $2.5 million the tribe received from Transportation in a settlement, which also gave the tribe ownership of 13 acres of the former 22.5-acre site, falls quite short, Charles said.

“That’s one of the challenges that we have,” she said.

The museum will be built on an additional 5 acres at the site that the tribe leases from Transportation.

Charles said the museum will be an education tool for the tribe and the rest of the public, a place that tells “the story of what happened here,” and exhibits will be rotated between Elwha museum and Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History, which holds the artifacts found during construction of the graving yard.

But once all the work on the site is complete and there are no more artifacts to catalog, Watson-Charles said she will continue to teach young people – and anyone, for that matter – the story of Tse-whit-zen.

That story, Watson-Charles said, has helped reconnect tribal members with their own culture, which is why she referred to it as “bittersweet.”

“It’s bitter the way it is happening,” she said.

“And it’s sweet because we get all these teachings back to us.”