Spend enough time in Port Angeles, and your eyes end up drawn out to sea.
A suburban grid of lettered streets takes you to a bluff, where million dollar homes overlook an utilitarian and industrial waterfront.
As a key artery in Clallam County’s economic circulatory system, the port’s primary focus is not aesthetic. Cargo ships ply their wares amid the bazaar of seagulls. Forklifts juggle giant logs from the peninsula, packaging them into comestibles to sate the world’s hunger for timber. Log rafts float in the harbor, apparently abandoned. Perhaps the useful can never be beautiful.
Above the city the elevation rises dramatically, a mountain range bursting out of dense forest. Hurricane Ridge and the splendors of the Olympic National Park are just miles away. Nowhere on the peninsula is the delicate dance of tradeoffs between nature and commerce better portrayed.
Out past a small marina, the harbor road road curves away from the shore and then straight into the ocean. This is Ediz Hook, shaped by wind and tides from the Strait of Juan de Fuca into a three-mile long sand spit. The sand spit to end all sand spits.
Colonized by homo industrius, reinforced with rock piles and asphalt, it is a barrier reef of sand that shelters the Port Angeles harbor from storms, swells, and of course invasions from the neighbors to the north.
Guarding the gates of the spit is a paper mill owned by Nippon Paper Industries USA. Ninety years old and counting, this is Nippon’s only paper mill in the United States, and the only remaining factory in the country that manufactures the paper used to make telephone books. While thoroughly invested in a declining market, the mill continues to operate and provide local jobs.
Despite literally throwing air pollution standards to the wind, the mill makes a handsome spectacle at twilight.
The tip of the spit is occupied by a hundred-year old Coast Guard station, complete with its own airstrip. The road forward is blocked to mere mortals without DHS credentials, so one can only observe from afar.
The rest of the Ediz Hook is a playground for photographers and a favorite location for locals to walk, watch the sunset, and beachcomb.
Ediz Hook is also home to a number of gravesites. The Great Master of the Ocean giveth, but he also taketh away.
As the Washington State Department of Transportation recently (and unintentionally) discovered, another kind of gravesite can also be found on Ediz Hook: the communal burial grounds of the native village of Tse-whit-zen, hidden under layers of fill on a site adjacent to the Nippon Paper mill.
It was this site that led to one of the more notorious conflicts between natives and whites in recent Washington history.
A DoT project to build a dry dock for pontoon construction had just broken ground on this site when it began to find native graves containing skeletons. Many were buried in unusual postures: some were found with heads cut off, others with their hands covering their faces, others face down. The likely causes of what appeared to be a mass grave were smallpox and influenza epidemics, unwittingly spread among the native population in the late 18th century by early Spanish explorers.
As the project proceeded, it soon became evident that what was being uncovered was the largest native village ever found in the Puget Sound area. Also one of the oldest, with radiocarbon dates approaching 1000BC.
The Klallam tribe had been known for their abilities as warriors, but had been decimated by the European plagues. A century after first contact, only around 450 Klallam remained, helpless to resist the coming of the settlers. Treaties were signed, and American-style development began.
During the 19th century, the Ediz Hook site was an important and recognized native gravesite. The last native occupants abandoned the site, and it was razed to the ground circa 1900. When the paper mill was built in the 1920s, it was noted in the local press that hundreds of bones were disturbed. But by 2004, only a hazy memory of the site remained in the minds of some Lower Elwha elders. Neither the Port of Port Angeles, the Dept. of Transportation nor the tribal chairman objected to the initial dry dock construction plan.
During early stages of the archeological investigation, the state was initially resistant to shutting down the project. Bowing to local ire, the tribe was reluctant to insist. So the two parties reached an initial agreement to keep the project going. Tribal workers were employed to exhume their dead. An Esquimault spiritual advisor was hired to help them, and she eventually recommended
As the Seattle Times explains…
“The ancestors here are so powerful: These old souls live,” said tribal spiritual adviser Mary Anne Thomas of the Esquimalt Nation in Canada. “Let the cemetery remain a cemetery, because it is alive down at that site.”
Thomas was hired, in part, to help tribal workers digging their ancestors out of the ground so construction could proceed. She wound up trying to explain to them why they felt a touch on their back or shoulder, why their tears would not stop, why they heard the sounds of wolves crying.
Some tribal members say they heard drums or saw the spirits of their ancestors, especially when they worked at the site at night, burning candles in respect and painting themselves with sacred red ochre for protection.
Despite these omens, the state tried everything to keep the project alive, including calculating the pressure per square inch of concrete on cadavers, in an attempt to convince the tribe that its ancestors wouldn’t mind a little pavement after all. But as more bodies were uncovered and the tally reached 335 by the end of 2004, plans for the dry dock were effectively put on the dry dock.
What happens next is either entirely unexpected or surprisingly good – depending on your perspective.
A number of local lawmakers attempt to revive the project in the following years. They encounter resistance from the state’s Secretary of Transportation and Governor, and their proposal go nowhere in Olympia. The Elwha Klallam keep their dead in hand-made cedar caskets in a warehouse, awaiting the right moment opportunity for reburial. The state looks for other sites to build pontoons, some for the upcoming rebuild of the 520 bridge.
Deadlock. No happy ending.
The tribe sues, is counter-sued. The state intervenes. Governor Gregoire offers to mediate.
The parties reach a settlement, with the state of Washington essentially paying everybody off. The city and port are each given $7.5 million for economic development. The tribe are given ownership of the site, $3.4 million for reburial, and $2.5 million to construct a museum and interpretive center. The site itself is largely restored to its original pre-project state. And after spending over $90 million on nothing, the state makes pontoons in Seattle and Tacoma.
If money doesn’t solves everything, I don’t know what does.
In 2008, the ancestors are reburied, and are reportedly happy to be back. Seattle’s Burke Museum is stuffed with artifacts uncovered during the project, awaiting a final destination.
The Tse-whit-zen museum remains unbuilt. The story isn’t over yet. Rumor is that construction might begin in 2012. I look forward to visiting someday.