Book Review:
Breaking Ground: The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the Unearthing of Tse-whit-zen Village

  • Posted 9/28/2010
  • Essay 9595

By Lynda V. Mapes
Paperback, 288 pages
Photographs, notes, glossary, index
ISBN 978-0-295-98878-8

History was both uncovered and made when preliminary construction work for a Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) dry dock on the Port Angeles waterfront unearthed the surprisingly intact Klallam village Tse-whit-zen.  The find brought to light a major archeological site -- one of the largest, oldest, and most complete Indian villages in the Northwest, along with its cemetery -- which lay buried, literally in the rubble of industrial construction and figuratively in collective memory.  And although it was far from the first time that Indian graves and cultural sites were disturbed by construction work (artifacts and human remains from Tse-whit-zen itself had been dug up and cast aside during earlier building at the site), the outcome this time was unprecedented: As the extent of Tse-whit-zen and its hundreds of previously untouched graves became evident, WSDOT ultimately agreed to the request of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and walked away from the site, where it had invested some $90 million in the dry dock project.  

A backhoe digging out old cement revealed the first signs of Tse-whit-zen -- a shell midden (an ancient refuse pile) -- in August 2003, just days after the groundbreaking for the dry dock project.  Transportation Secretary Douglas MacDonald shut down the project for good 16 months later in December 2004.  In Breaking Ground, Lynda Mapes, a veteran journalist who covered the story for The Seattle Times, perceptively recounts the intervening period from the differing viewpoints of those involved -- MacDonald and other WSDOT staff, Lower Elwha Klallam tribal members, Port Angeles officials, and others. 

Breaking Ground also supplies the historical perspective that was evidently lacking when the dry dock project was planned, describing how Tse-whit-zen ended up buried beneath a large tract of industrial land that on the surface appeared to be an ideal location to build the huge dry dock needed to construct new concrete pontoons for the aging Hood Canal Floating Bridge, a crucial piece of infrastructure linking the Olympic Peninsula to the rest of the state.  Inhabited for thousands of years, Tse-whit-zen ("area inside the spit") was one of a string of Klallam villages that lined the north shore of the Olympic Peninsula along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  It occupied a prime location at the base of the long sand spit of Ediz Hook where the town of Port Angeles later grew up.  The first non-Indian settlers to occupy the village site left the extensive tribal cemetery undisturbed, but as Port Angeles industrialized -- powered by electricity from dams on the Elwha River that devastated the prodigious salmon runs that had sustained the Klallam people -- timber mills were built over the village and cemetery, with some human remains used as backfill.  However, much of the ground was covered with fill, and intact burials, artifacts, and remnants of the large longhouses remained beneath the new development.  

Mapes relies on extensive interviews, especially with elders Bea Charles and Adeline Smith (both in their late 80s at the time), along with documentary evidence, to tell the story of the Lower Elwha tribe's long struggle to survive the loss of their home, the damming of their river, and the discrimination that led many to withdraw from Port Angeles society. The resulting "collective amnesia," as Mapes terms it, in which few non-Klallam residents of the city seemed to be aware of the past -- or present -- existence of the tribe, clearly contributed to the decision to build the dry dock on what turned out to be the Tse-whit-zen site. The Port Angeles officials who offered the tract to WSDOT for the drydock project, which brought needed jobs to the community, did not mention Indian villages or burials in the area. Both the Lower Elwha Tribe and archeologists hired by WSDOT noted that the village and cemetery were somewhere nearby, but the small tribe had no archeologist on staff and the archeologists working for WSDOT surveyed the site and found no evidence of the village. No one, even from the tribe, asked Bea Charles or Adeline Smith, who knew it was there.  

When Tse-whit-zen began emerging during dry dock construction, it touched off a long, intricate, and emotionally fraught effort of negotiation and co-operation between WSDOT and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.  MacDonald suspended construction after the first human remains were discovered and, going beyond legal requirements, said it would not proceed without the tribe's agreement.  After six months of delicate negotiations, the tribe, which did not want to be viewed as obstructing the project and saw an opportunity to recover and rebury remains desecrated in the earlier construction, gave its agreement.  For most of 2004, construction proceeded side by side with archeological investigation, which gradually revealed an extremely significant site: not just thousands of rare and important artifacts, but a village complex, with houses, cooking areas, ceremonial areas, drying racks, and more.  But the digging also began turning up hundreds of intact burials, so that now instead of recovering desecrated remains to rebury, tribe members saw the work disturbing more and more ancestors from their resting places.  With the tribe asking that the project be abandoned, and it becoming increasingly evident that it would be impossible to find and recover all the burials, MacDonald, with the support of Washington Governor Gary Locke but over the vehement objection of Port Angeles officials and workers, closed down the project (the bridge pontoons were eventually build in a smaller existing dry dock in Tacoma).  

Breaking Ground does a masterful job of telling this complex story, which is both an important part of Washington history and an object lesson in the perils of ignoring that history. Many photographs, including family photos showing Klallam life from early in the twentieth century as well as contemporary photos by Mapes' photographer colleagues at the Times, enhance the book.

By Kit Oldham, September 28, 2010

Submitted: 9/28/2010

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