Ancestral bone fragments stir emotion

PORT ANGELES – 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 who 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.

“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 that 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 the museum, expected 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.