American Indians pull with pride in Elwha

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — “Paddle to Elwha” brought thousands of Pacific Northwest Indians and their friends to the waterfront of this old Olympic Peninsula mill town Aug. 1 to celebrate the arrival of 76 dugout canoes from as far north as Alaska and far south as Coos Bay, Ore.

Voyaging hundreds of miles across the often windswept waters of the Pacific, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Inland Passage and Puget Sound, the “pullers,” mostly youthful Indian men and women, were greeted as heroes as the canoes arrived one by one at Hollywood Beach in downtown Port Angeles.

The canoes are cedar dugouts like those that once plied these waters carrying trade goods or used in fishing and whaling. Makah whaling canoes, some 80 feet long, ventured into the Pacific on whale hunts. Today the canoes are carved and painted with dramatic images of ravens, eagles and whales as authentic as those of the past.

This year, 14 Aleuts from the Pribilof Island in the Aleutians joined the paddle in their bidarkas, or kayaks, made of stitched seal skin.

‘Now we are awakening’

David Hudson, hereditary chief of the Quileute Tribe of LaPush, stood on the beach beaming with joy. “That’s my son, my daughter, my nieces and nephews in the Quileute dugout there,” he told the World, pointing toward a handsome canoe riding a few feet offshore. “They came all the way from LaPush on the Pacific Ocean around Cape Flattery into the Strait. They camped at night, at Wyaatch, Neah Bay, Clallam Bay, Pillar Point. They carried no modern navigational equipment. No cell phones.”

The idea of resurrecting their seafaring heritage began many years ago, he said. “We started back in 1976 when we paddled from LaPush to Neah Bay. I participated in that paddle. Now we are one big canoe family from Alaska to Quinalt. This is an alcohol-free and drug-free event.”

The annual celebration, a combination of powwow and potlatch, combines cultural pride, good food, dancing and music as well as much athletic prowess. “It is pretty emotional for our elders seeing this comeback by our people,” he said. “Some told us we had lost our culture. But our elders told us it was just sleeping. Now we are awakening.”

The waterborne ingathering won national attention in 1989 when nine canoes joined the “Paddle to Seattle,” a centerpiece of the centennial of the founding of Seattle. One of those canoes was skippered by Frank Brown of the Bella Bella tribe of British Columbia. He threw down a challenge to tribes in the U.S. to “Paddle to Bella Bella” in 1993. It was a triumphant success.

The Bella Bellas also took the lead in reviving the craft of canoe-carving. Now Bella Bella carvers travel from tribe to tribe teaching them how to build canoes. Two Bella Bella canoes, again skippered by Brown, arrived from British Columbia, conspicuous for their sweeping lines and magnificent painted prows.

Ten days to paddle 200 miles

Among the newest entrants were the Nooksack tribe north of Bellingham. The Nooksack pullers, young men and women, had just dragged their canoe up on Hollywood Beach when they spoke with the PWW.

“Our journey took 10 days and over 200 miles,” said Alex Cooper, who works fulltime at the Nooksack tribal casino. “We stopped at each village along the way. This was the first time the Nooksack joined. We didn’t even have a canoe. Luckily, another tribe lent us one of theirs. We plan to carve our own canoe. This is the reunification of our native people. It is rejuvenating our spirit. Everyone is welcome.”

Jeremiah Johnny, employed by the Department of Natural Resources at the Nooksack Tribal Center, said the many stops at villages along the shore “gives us an awareness of our gravesites and our sacred grounds. It is a good reason to bring so many of us together. This is our way of honoring the oldest ones, honoring our past and standing up for our future.”

Remembering Tse-whit-zen Village

“Paddle to Elwha” was sponsored by the Lower Elwha S’Klallams for which Clallam County is named. The tribe was forced in the 1930s to leave their ancestral village site where Port Angeles now stands, as well as a site at the base of Ediz Hook across the bay. They had to purchase land to provide the site for the reservation that exists today at the mouth of the Elwha River eight miles west of Port Angeles.

They and all other Pacific Northwest Indians were even denied the right to fish, a staple of their diet, until 1974 when Federal Judge George Boldt handed down a landmark ruling that half the annual salmon catch belongs to the Indians. The Elwha River has been in the news in recent years because of a plan to remove a dam in hopes of reviving a salmon run that once spawned in the headwaters of the stream.

The theme of this year’s paddle was “Reflections on our past: Honoring Tse-whit-zen Village.” The village, sheltered in the cove of Ediz Hook, across the bay, is now estimated to have been inhabited 2,700 years ago. It was discovered last year when the Washington State Department of Transportation began construction of the so-called graving site where giant pontoons were to be fabricated to replace aging pontoons on the Hood Canal floating bridge.

During excavation, intact remains of hundreds of ancestors of the S’Klallam people were unearthed, while the scattered bones of hundreds more were churned up during construction. It touched off an outcry from the tribe that their most sacred burial ground was being destroyed, a protest so strong that the state was forced to suspend construction on the 22-acre site near the old Crown Zellerbach paper mill. The steel ribs of the graving yard now loom silent over the site.

A team of archaeologists, including more than 100 Klallam tribal members, established an archaeological dig to painstakingly sift for more intact graves and to preserve the human remains and artifacts. It is now recognized as the most important archaeological site in the Pacific Northwest since the discovery in 1970 of the Ozette landslide site on a remote stretch of the Pacific coast. (A Makah Indian village had been inundated, instantly, in a landslide 800 years ago, preserving everything so perfectly it was called the “Pompei of North America.” Artifacts from the Ozette site are now housed in a splendid museum in Neah Bay. See “Makah Indians Defend Their Treaty Rights,” PWW, May 12, 2000).

The day after they arrived at Hollywood Beach, the canoes streamed across Port Angeles Bay to the site of Tse-whit-zen Village for a solemn memorial ceremony.

Tribes came in solidarity

As the canoes rode on the tide, Lower Elwha tribal chairwoman, Frances Charles, told the crowd, “We have 316 cedar boxes on our reservation that are waiting to be placed back into their resting place. We have the remains of thousands upon thousands who have died here. We are looking for healing here. We are asking for songs and prayers of healing here.”

An elder stood at the stern of the Blue Heron canoe and replied, “We come here to show our strength when we are together, to show the strength of our solidarity.”

A woman elder from the Muckleshoot tribe thanked the S’Klallams for the difficult struggle they have waged to defend Tse-whit-zen Village. The pontoon construction project had been greeted for the jobs it created in a region with chronic high unemployment and poverty.

“We are thankful to the Elwha people, thankful for the things you are doing to bring out who we are inside,” the Muckleshoot leader said. “Our Indian-ness was almost taken away from us but now you are winning it back.”

There have been Cold War-style attacks on their patriotism. Bangor on Hood Canal is the base for nuclear submarines deployed in the Pacific. The Hood Canal floating bridge is designed to draw back for passage of these menacing leviathans.

In an open letter headlined, “I Wish This on No Other Nation,” Charles wrote, “They tell us that it’s a safety factor that we are faced with — that there is a war out there, and that the submarines have to continue to pass through the Hood Canal Bridge, and that if the submarines can’t get through … we will be to blame. … We are being threatened and threatened.”

Of course, nothing the S’Klallam tribe has done is having any effect whatsoever on passage of the nuclear subs in and out of Hood Canal.

‘We want our dead reburied with dignity’

Charles told the World, “Paddle to Elwha was important for our community in terms of our theme, ‘Reflections on the Past of Tse-whit-zen Village.’ This is a unique situation here, but all the other Native American people across the nation have similar stories of their ancestral gravesites being destroyed. It has given our community the strength and unity to carry on.”

Construction of the pontoon graving site has been halted since last December, she said. Yet the final outcome remains in limbo. “The goal of the Lower Elwha community is we would like to see the reburial of these remains on that site if possible.”

Asked about discussion of a Tse-whit-zen museum like the Ozette museum in Neah Bay, she replied, “What we would like to see in the future is for our people to have a curation facility. It is really important for the Elwha community. We want to maintain and have ownership of the artifacts. We don’t want to be going to any of the other museums to be viewing them. We have over 13,000 artifacts. There are many, many unique arrows, harpoons, etched stones. There are Chinese coins. We have unearthed 800 etched rocks. We found beautiful combs.”

This archaeological dig has also unearthed the foundations of six cedar longhouses. The team is trying to figure out how to preserve the remains of cedar planks on the longhouses, which crumble apart when exposed to the air.

“This village was standing there 2,700 years ago,” she said. “It is reviving me personally, reviving our culture and our heritage. We were in danger of losing it. But now we have our heads held high.”

She voiced frustration at the deadlock. “We are continuing the negotiations with all the key players to move forward with the reburial process,” she said. “We feel we’ve been talking about this for the last seven months, yet we are moving backward.”

The discovery of Tse-whit-zen Village and the struggle now to prevent it being covered over with concrete, she said, brings into sharp focus a centuries-long struggle. “Our people were punished for speaking their own language, our children were taken away from their families, and we were forced to leave our ancestral villages. Now it is emotionally, physically and spiritually hard to see how these remains are being treated,” she said. “Every day is a funeral. We want them reburied with dignity.”

Tim Wheeler (greenerpastures21212 @ yahoo.com) is national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World.