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The Tse-whit-zen disaster: one incomplete dock, millions of dollars, and hundreds of disrupted burial sites

Written by Kara Denner, MSc Archaeology student at the University of Edinburgh


The Pacific Northwest, encompassing the U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and the Canadian province of British Columbia, are rich with indigenous history and archaeological sites that can give the public a glimpse into the past, but more importantly, make up a part of indigenous identity and culture in the present.



Mount Rainier from Puget Sound, bordering Washington and British Columbia © Farragutful
Mount Rainier from Puget Sound, bordering Washington and British Columbia © Farragutful

The presence of Indigenous people is embedded throughout the Pacific Northwest’s rugged coastal areas. According to the University of Washington, there are over 550 federally recognised indigenous clans [1]. In Washington alone, there are twenty-nine federally recognised groups, and this number ignores the many communities that are not federally recognised such as the Duwamish, Wanapum and Chinook. Questioning which sites or areas are valuable enough “to save” is dangerous, as typically the factors that inform “value” from a governing agency’s perspective differ greatly from how “value” is produced in indigenous cultures.

 

This clash of policy, power, and value played out in the Tse-whit-zen village site of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe nestled along the Puget Sound in northern Washington State. Author and environmental reporter Lynda Mapes explains that Tse-whit-zen (“area inside the split”) was one of many Klallam villages that lined the north shore of the Olympic Peninsula along the Strait of Juan de Fuca [2]. The site was situated on prime land near Ediz Hook where the town of Port Angeles would later be founded. The land is described by Mapes as an “Eden. Probably one of the finest places to live in the Aboriginal world.” Parts of the village were in use by the Lower Elwha Klallam people and their ancestors for a span of 2,700 years, making it one of the oldest indigenous sites to be unearthed in this area [2].



Aerial photograph showing silt in the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the mouth of the Elwha River, Washington, US. The Olympic Mountains are in the distance. Via Wikipedia Commons
Aerial photograph showing silt in the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the mouth of the Elwha River, Washington, US. The Olympic Mountains are in the distance. Via Wikipedia Commons

The Tse-whit-zen village site was included in an area the city of Port Angeles sold to the state’s Department of Transportation to construct a graving dock. Originally, the project was expected to cost approximately USD 19 million; however, in the construction process they discovered that “276 full burials and 500 partial burials of Lower Elwha Klallam ancestors” would be disrupted [3]. Construction was halted, and excavation began, bringing the total cost to a staggering USD 85 million [3]. Klallam community members were shocked that no one thought of this area as an indigenous place, and that it seemed like the perfect industrial construction site [2].

 

Members of the Lower Elwha Klallam community banded together and began the daunting task of reburying their ancestors while unearthing their history. One of the village Elders, Johnson Charles, would sometimes arrive on site “with the red paint on his cheeks for spiritual protection, and the Indian flute would try to give comfort to the tribal workers as they worked at the site. He would play some of the songs that they knew from their own ceremonies, to try to calm the emotions which were of course, very intense as this work went on.” [2] The excavation resulted in the recovery of hundreds of burials and, “millions of artefacts” and an uncompleted dock. Some of the objects found include tools for hunting and fishing, exquisite decorative items, important ceremonial goods and thousands more [2]. Representatives of the community explain, “Breaking ground at Tse-whit-zen uncovered not only the past of this place but its present.” [3]  


Tse whit zen village. ©  Jon Roanhaus
Tse whit zen village. © Jon Roanhaus

 

This case is called the “Tse-whit-zen Heritage Disaster,” by Dr Richard M. Hutchings, professional Salish Sea heritage writer, who believes it was a result of the under-representation of indigenous voices in heritage management planning [3]. For Washington State, the consequences of the failed construction project were an unfinished dock and a larger price tag. The consequences for the Lower Elwha Klallam Indigenous community, however, were far greater: the misappropriation of Native authority and disruption of a culturally important place.


This mismanaging of history mirrors hundreds of years of Western intervention in Native affairs. Tribal Chairwoman for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe maintains that the City of Port Angeles should be held responsible, claiming, “They knew what was here 150 years ago. They knew the heritage of what was here. They can’t sit there and be unaware. They ignored it because of their greed.” [2] 


The Port of Port Angeles © Sea Cow
The Port of Port Angeles © Sea Cow

 

High Tide for Coastal Heritage

 

Industrial development, like in Port Angeles, and rising sea levels are both threatening coastal communities’ marine cultural heritage. Marine Archaeologist Dr Jon Henderson explains, “marine cultural heritage encompasses tangible remains such as shipwrecks, submerged settlements, coastal settlements, ports and harbours, maritime ecologies, and geology as well as equally vital intangible components such as cultural practices, artistic and linguistic expressions, local skills, traditional and historical knowledge.” [4]

 

The public should be concerned with not only the physical evidence of coastal archaeology but also the intangible history. Marine cultural heritage protection is especially important in indigenous communities where ideas of value and ancestry are intrinsically linked with place and are vital to cultural survival.

 

Indigenous communities are often portrayed as fixtures of the past whose cultures, languages, and practices are dying out in the modern world. In reality, indigenous cultures are vibrant communities where ancestry and placemaking are essential to identity and prosperity.


Map of Klallam traditional tribal territory and reservations. Via Wikipedia Commons
Map of Klallam traditional tribal territory and reservations. Via Wikipedia Commons

 

Marine Cultural Heritage at Risk

 

The increasing risk of heritage loss caused by rising sea levels and coastal development was dubbed the Maritime Heritage Crisis by Richard Hutchings [3]. In his work, Hutchings explains that, globally, coastlines experience more pressure from resource extraction, high-scale tourism, and industrial development that accelerate rates of degradation and ecological breakdown. Making matters worse, the ever-looming danger of rapidly rising sea levels threatens to consume coastlines and all the history they hold.

 

So what do we do?

 

Hutchings bleakly summarises the opinion of many in the cultural resource management industry, “We’ll never save everything, so hard decisions are needed as to which to let go.”  

 

At first glance, you might assume that cultural resource management involves the management of cultural material. However, thinking about it historically, Hutchings recognises the industry is a government response that’s driven by political interest rather than cultural value. By ironically excluding culture, the traditional model of cultural resource management is unethical and not sustainable in a socially conscious world. Hutchings calls the Tse-whit-zen case in Port Angeles, Washington, a “risk management response” to indigenous heritage [3].

 

The "Tse-whit-zen Heritage Disaster" is just one example of how current CRM industry approaches fail indigenous communities, especially in areas like the Pacific Northwest. The maritime heritage crisis is an ever-growing threat as sea levels continue to rise and coastal development flourishes. Marine cultural heritage is an under-researched part of our history and one of the fastest-disappearing resources.


 

New Ways Forward

 

In the Pacific Northwest, indigenous heritage is at risk, and decisions concerning their cultural material should first be delegated to the communities themselves rather than an external agency whose main goal is salvage archaeology. New approaches in heritage management are essential to creating sustainable practices.

 

Authority over cultural material should be in the hands of the communities that produced them, and decisions regarding management responses should highlight indigenous voices. These issues all tie into the larger context of Indigenous sovereignty in North America.

 

One promising approach gaining traction in the archaeology world is public outreach and engagement with ‘community archaeology’— or, in other words, archaeology for the people by the people. Community archaeology is beautifully exemplified by the Lower Elwha Klallam members and their work on Tse-whit-zen. Efforts in popularising public-led archaeology are being pioneered by young archaeologists who hope to make the field more approachable. One way they achieve this is by getting kids excited about archaeology; learning activities designed for younger children can jumpstart a passion for history that can be cultivated and perhaps breed a whole new generation of talented archaeologists. Other efforts include local clubs available to amateurs of all ages to work on surveys, archives, and even excavations. Often, these programmes are facilitated by collaborations between professional archaeologists and local authorities like schools and libraries, so anyone feeling inspired should be able to get involved with a community project in your area.



Grand Canyon Archaeology Day. Kids learn about people who lived at Grand Canyon long ago by participating in hands-on archaeological activities. Those that want to pretend to be modern archaeologists, can participate in the artifact sifting activity. When bits of evidence are found, some may be able to discover what the artifacts are and what they were used for.  © NPS Photo by Dana Belcher
Grand Canyon Archaeology Day. Kids learn about people who lived at Grand Canyon long ago by participating in hands-on archaeological activities. Those that want to pretend to be modern archaeologists, can participate in the artifact sifting activity. When bits of evidence are found, some may be able to discover what the artifacts are and what they were used for. © NPS Photo by Dana Belcher


 


References

[1].“Indigenous Communities'' University of Washington. Published 2024. Accessed

Febuary 23, 2024. https://hr.uw.edu/cfd/about/diversity-equity-and-inclusion/indigenous/#:~:text=In%20Washington%20state%20there%20are,members%20of%20these%20many%20tribes.

 

[2] Mapes, L. Breaking Ground: The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the Unearthing of

Tse-whit-zen Village. University of Washington Press. 2009.

 

[3] Hutchings, R. Maritime Heritage in Crisis: Indigenous Landscapes and Global

Ecological Breakdown (1st ed.). Routledge. 2016.

 

[4] Henderson, J. "Oceans without History? Marine Cultural Heritage and the Sustainable

Development Agenda" Sustainability. 2019; 11(18): 5080. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11185080


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