By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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“They've been away for such a long time, I almost can't believe they're home,” said Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe.
Charles and other members of the tribe brought back the items from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle earlier this week.
The artifacts will now be on permanent public display at the Elwha Klallam Heritage Center, 401 E. Front St.
The free exhibit opens at noon Saturday with songs from the Elwha Drum Group and speeches from tribal leaders.
Tse-whit-zen, occupied for at least 2,700 years until supplanted by industrial development in the 19th and 20th centuries, is one of the largest and most significant archaeological sites in Washington state.
The village was rediscovered in August 2003 during work along Marine Drive to build an onshore dry dock for construction of concrete pontoons to repair the Hood Canal Bridge.
'Wanted to be heard'
“For over a month, they tried to get that last sheet piling in the ground,” said Arlene Wheeler, tribal planning director.
“The others went in the ground like butter, but the ancestors under that last one wouldn't let them in. They wanted to be heard.”
Archaeologists exhumed the remains of 335 tribal members and some 80,000 artifacts before the construction project was shut down at the request of the tribe in December 2004 in order to protect what remained of the village and other graves there from further disruption.
The pontoon work was relocated to Tacoma.
The state had spent more than $60 million.
“That was something that the Creator, in her own way, spoke to us,” Charles said. “Our ancestors stood up and demanded to be heard.”
Most of the artifacts remain in storage at the Burke and have yet to be analyzed.
Artifacts on display
Artifacts that will be on display include a comb carved out of bone, a ring, two blanket pins carved with the images of a fawn and a halibut, round stones carved to weigh down fishing nets, bone hooks and harpoon points, and a spindle whorl carved from a whale vertebrae.
“It's one thing to find a spear point or an arrowhead,” tribal archaeologist Bill White said.
“But the stuff you see here — as far as the carvings and the effigies — this was a highly sophisticated culture that had the time to actually make these ornaments.”
Other items on display include bone carvings of a doll and an animal, both likely made as toys for the youths of Tse-whit-zen.
“They sure didn't have Swain's [General Store] in those days,” Charles said.
Also in the collection will be seven of the more than 900 etched stones recovered from the site, though Charles said those will not be permanently displayed.
“Each of those stones tells somebody's personal story,” Charles said. “Our elders didn't feel right putting too many of those out for too long.”
Tse-whit-zen is one of the richest finds of ancient Native American objects in the country.
“It was almost like one continuous metropolis from Tse-whit-zen to Y'innis,” White said.
Y'innis was a large settlement at the mouth of Ennis Creek on the east side of Port Angeles Harbor.
Connect with culture
The artifacts will be used to help further the tribe's efforts to connect their youths to their culture in school programs, Charles said.
“In our era, we weren't provided the chance to learn our language,” she said.
“Our parents and our grandparents wouldn't talk about it.
“Because they're elders, if they spoke the language, they were punished. They were beaten and taken away from their families and put in boarding schools”
Tribal carvers for the past several years have visited the Burke to view the artifacts and then made replicas for use in those education programs.
“Now, we'll have the real thing here,” Charles said.
She said incorporating tribal history into school programs has helped instill a sense of pride in members, as did the recovery work at Tse-whit-zen.
“It really helped a lot of our people who were struggling with drugs and alcohol,” Charles said, as the tribe required workers at the site to be sober.
“This whole thing has been good and bad,” she said.
“It stirred up a lot of sadness, a lot of anger, a lot of hurt. But it also gave us that connection to our heritage that we were missing for so long. And that gave us — our kids, our elders — a lot of pride.
Eventually, a museum
Eventually, Charles said, the tribe would like to build a museum at Tse-whit-zen — now fenced and closed to the public — to store these and more artifacts from the village.
They plan to erect some of the totem poles taken down with the dismantling of an old longhouse at Lincoln Park last fall to mark the buildings of Tse-whit-zen.
The site also is being preserved for its history.
Last month, the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation unanimously decided to recommend Tse-whit-zen to the National Park Service for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
The keeper of the register in Washington, D.C., is reviewing the proposal and is expected to issue a final designation in the next few months.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at email@example.com.