Northwest tribe clashes with pro-development officials in battle to preserve Native history

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the treaty negotiated by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens and Northwest Indian tribes. The tribes traded 64 million acres of land for the right to fish and keep reservation lands.

Does that mean relations between whites and Indians have mellowed into mutual respect? Yes and no. When disputes over sovereignty and Native rights arise, the public generally responds 4-to-1 in favor of Indians. But those who stand to profit by stealing Native resources fight sovereignty with all the power they can muster.

The past uncovered. One such battle is unfolding right now on the Washington state peninsula, in Port Angeles. There, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe is working to preserve an ancestral burial ground located on waterfront property that elected officials and businesses want to develop.

The tribe’s fight began last year when the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) uncovered Tse-whit-zen, a centuries-old community that was destroyed in the 1920s. WSDOT made the discovery while crews were excavating the property in preparation for a bridge repair. The Lower Elwha Klallams — whose forebears lived there for 2,700 years — petitioned WSDOT to stop their work after crews began digging up several hundred ancestral remains and an entire village.

In December 2004, the agency complied, citing the significance of the site and the delay and cost of continuing the project. Tribal workers hired by WSDOT had already unearthed thousands of artifacts, including a longhouse structure, cooking hearths and tools for hunting. The agency has a policy of consulting tribes in such sensitive cases. Moreover, the Native Historic Preservation Act protects major indigenous burial grounds such as this site.

The discovery was not a complete surprise to anyone, including city officials. While the exact location of Tse-whit-zen was unknown, a study by anthropologists had shown it to be somewhere near the waterfront property that Port Angeles officials sold to WSDOT. Consequently, the tribe had urged caution in excavating the area.

WSDOT scheduled negotiations to transfer control of the property to the tribe for January 2005. But city officials and business groups quickly intervened to thwart a resolution.

Politicians sabotage talks. From the get-go, elected tribal chairwoman Frances G. Charles has asserted her people’s sovereign rights, saying, “We need to make this a government to government discussion.” To that end, she urged WSDOT to find a new site for its bridge repair, and the agency began considering three other locations for its project.

But business interests and their allies in local government have launched a vicious attack on the tribe. They hope to back the Klallams down from claiming what is rightfully theirs, and hence clear the way for selling and developing waterfront property. Port Angeles Mayor Richard Headrick and city council members are using personal attacks and playing to stereotypes to whip up anti-Indian sentiment, especially against Frances Charles.

At a recent breakfast meeting of the Port Angeles Business Association, city officials publicly slandered the tribe as devious.

“As a result of its actions, the tribe also has cast the future of the city’s entire waterfront into doubt,” Headrick was quoted in the Peninsula Daily News. “Trust and respect must be earned. It is not Frances Charles’ for the asking.” He went on to say that Charles “cannot be trusted to honor any agreements.”

Tim Smith, director of the city’s economic development, accused Charles of creating a “risky” investment climate. In fact, the city is scapegoating the tribe to cover up officials’ own very shady deal of selling land they knew might contain an ancient Native village.

Meanwhile, Councilman Larry Williams urged fellow realtors in an email to “draw a line in the sand.”

Despite the city’s bully tactics, the tribe’s women leaders are firm in their declaration that all construction must stop.

“We will not allow further desecration of our ancestors,” Native activist Monica Charles said. “This is not about jobs or money. It is about simple human dignity.”

Tribal chair Charles has offered to sit down with city leaders to explain her tribe’s position. She is also planning a public presentation in May to educate people about Native history, treaty rights, and sovereignty.

For now, the tribe has managed to stop all work at Tse-whit-zen. And they are backed by supporters in the community who believe land can have value for reasons other than generating profits for investors. What happens next will probably be a long, hard-fought battle on both sides.

Port Angeles: tip of the iceberg. Their conflict will be closely watched. Other sacred and historic sites are being discovered elsewhere around the region where construction is planned.

Near Seattle, a site for new pillars for the SR520 bridge rests on a Duwamish tribal burial ground.

Along the Columbia River, Indian artifacts were found during preparation of a project to mark the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. Discovery of the artifacts, probably related to the Chinook tribe, has at least temporarily interrupted construction.

But cases like these don’t have to end in antagonism. The state’s parks department recently negotiated return of Old Man State Park to the Suquamish tribe. In four public meetings held by the agency, most neighbors supported return of the park to the tribe, despite racist objections by a few.

Right now, public support for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe could help win a similarly positive outcome. To sign a petition for the tribe, go to

Ann Rogers is a Chippewa and Native rights activist in Seattle; Lois Danks is Radical Women’s organizer in Port Angeles. Both can be reached at fsnews @

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