Lower Elwha reburies human remains

Port Angeles, Washington (AP) 9-08

Francis Charles counts boxes filled with the remains of her relatives in 2007. AP Photo

The Lower Elwha tribe has reburied the remains of more than 500 people that were uncovered at a construction project in Port Angeles.

The site is now a tribal cemetery.

The discovery of the remains five years ago forced the state Transportation Department to move a dry-dock site after spending more than $70 million. The work building pontoons for the Hood Canal floating bridge update was moved to Tacoma.

Remains of more than 300 people were reburied Sept. 15 in cedar boxes with 200 more following on Sept. 16. The people had lived at a village that dates back 2,700 years.

More than five years after state construction crews inadvertently unearthed human remains from a Native American site dating back 2,700 years, the remains have been reburied.

Members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula began burial ceremonies Sept. 15 with singing and praying. A mass grave has been prepared as the resting place for the tribe’s ancestors. Those remains had been kept in boxes.

“It’s really hard to express our emotions at this point in time. We are still in mourning,” Lower Elwha Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles told The Seattle Times. “But it is good to see some of the smiles come back to our community members, knowing the heaviness is lifted off.”

In 2003, the state Department of Transportation began construction on a waterfront property near here to build pontoons for a nearby bridge project. Tribe members had warned that a tribal site was nearby, but a state-hired archaeologist did not find anything. It only took a few days for construction workers to start digging out remains.

After spending about $70 million, the state halted construction in 2004 at the request of the tribe. The reburial grounds were returned by the state to the tribe in 2006.

Digs at the site have uncovered thousands of artifacts, like spindles made out of whale bone. Archaeologists say the Indian village is one of the largest and oldest in Washington.

Tribal leaders said the ground will remain a cemetery, and they hope a longhouse and museum will be built nearby.

Carmen Watson Charles, who worked with other tribal members pulling the bones from the path of construction, said that there’s a lot of emotion coming from tribal members.

“Unity and respect for one another, that’s what I hope is learned from this,” Charles said.

Lower Elwha Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles says the tribe is still mourning the disturbance of it ancestors.