Lower Elwha tribe reburying 300 ancestors at village site in Port Angeles

The Seattle Times
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
By Lynda V. Mapes

PORT ANGELES - With prayer and song, Lower Elwha tribal members at daybreak
Monday began reburying the remains of more than 300 ancestors unearthed
during a state construction project on the Port Angeles waterfront.

Tribal members had waited five years to return their ancestors' remains to
sacred ground, inadvertently disturbed when the state Department of
Transportation sited a large construction project atop Tse-whit-zen, one of
the largest and oldest Indian villages in Washington, including an extensive
burial ground.

After spending more than $70 million, the state walked away from its
construction of the dry-dock site in December 2004 at the request of the
tribe.

The state went on to build components needed to repair the Hood Canal Bridge
at an existing dry dock in Tacoma.

Now, as their ancestors' bones are returned to their burial ground, perhaps
healing can finally begin, tribal members said Monday.

"It's really hard to express our emotions at this point in time. We are
still in mourning," said Lower Elwha Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles.

"But it is good to see some of the smiles come back to our community members
knowing the heaviness is lifted off."

Mass grave prepared

A full moon was setting in the west, and dawn painted the sky tangerine as
gravediggers began moving cedar boxes holding the remains into a mass grave
prepared at the site.

It was near the same place on the site where, during the state's
construction project, workers in 2003 had disturbed what appeared to be a
hastily prepared grave that may have been used when a smallpox epidemic
swept through the village.

Portions of the village date back 2,700 years.

The skeletal remains were stored in handmade cedar boxes in a World War
II-era bunker on the reservation until they could be reburied.

With the sound of a single hand bell, soft song and prayer, pallbearers laid
the boxes containing their ancestors' remains side by side, facing east to
the rising sun.

A cloud of seagulls lifted from the Strait of Juan de Fuca and a doe and
fawn picked their way across the site while diggers worked. The morning air
was so still, burning candles held by spiritual workers did not flicker.

As Port Angeles awoke, the industrial waterfront soon rumbled to life. Log
loaders growled next door as the neighboring pulp mill chuffed with steam.

Longhouse to be built?

The tribe's sacred ground was returned as part of a settlement agreement
with the state in 2006. It is intended to remain a cemetery. The tribe hopes
that one day a longhouse and museum will be built nearby.

Preparation for the reburial got under way Saturday, with prayers, songs and
a gathering of spiritual workers, many of them traveling from Canada to
help.

Work continued at the bunker into Sunday night, with tribal members
organizing the boxes to ensure that the remains would be reburied as much as
possible as they had originally been found, with families and couples
reburied together.

"These last couple days I have been crying a lot. We feel their pain, of
being taken out of the ground. They are disturbed, not resting," said tribal
member Arlene Wheeler. "Putting them back is going to bring a lot of peace,
and a lot of healing, just knowing they are at rest again."

Carmen Watson Charles had worked alongside other tribal members during the
dry-dock project, pulling the bones from the path of construction.

"We all bleed, we all have red blood, emotions and feelings, it's learning
that everyone's different and yet the same," she said. "Unity and respect
for one another - that's what I hope is learned from this."

Back again today

As the sun rose higher, work quickened so people could leave the burying
grounds by noon, in keeping with spiritual teaching.

After smoothing the earth over more than 100 cedar boxes, tribal members
left a green cedar wreath behind to mark the fresh grave for their loved
ones, decorated with roses woven from cedar bark and tiny, carved cedar
canoe paddles.

They would be back again at dawn today, with more than 200 boxes yet to be
buried.

"It is going to be a challenge for the forgiveness within ourselves, there
is so much hurt and anger," Charles said. "But we know we need to keep
looking forward, and not in the past."

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Photo caption: A cedar wreath and bough sit next to a Port Angeles site
where the Lower Elwha tribe is reburying its ancestors.

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