200 from all sides in graving yard controversy pack banquet room to hear from Transportation Commission
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES -- More than 200 people packed a hotel banquet room Monday to throw their frustrations at each other about the Hood Canal Bridge graving yard.

The crowd was roughly equally divided among members of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe and their supporters, construction union members, politicians and civic leaders, and people who came with questions about how the project foundered after spending nearly $60 million.

The meeting in the Port Angeles CrabHouse banquet room was hosted by four members of the Washington Transportation Commission and Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald.

Throughout the three-hour gathering, speakers from all viewpoints said cooperation was the only solution to the problems left behind when the state departed the 22.5-acre site on the Port Angeles waterfront.

Disagreements voiced

But for most of the meeting on a Valentine's Day meant for lovers, speakers voiced their disagreements.

``You're on a village site where you're sitting and standing here tonight,'' Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles said early in the meeting.

Her reference was to Tse-whit-zen, the ancestral Klallam community unearthed by graving yard construction.

She spoke of how her ancestors had been burned out and run off Ediz Hook and the waterfront, and the bones of graves used as backfill for a timber mill.

And 16 months of exhuming ancestors' remains in 2003 and 2004 ``were heartache and hurt.''

``We were in a funeral every day down there,'' Charles told the crowd.

But Port Angeles Mayor Richard Headrick said it had been the tribe's choice to remove ancestral remains. In the process, he said, tribal members earned money and learned archaeological skills.

His comments drew fire from Arlene Wheeler, cultural resource officer for the tribe.

``We don't let anybody else dig up our ancestors,'' she said.

Jeb Maynard, who identified himself as a representative of the American Taxpayers Foundation, asked why the tribe hadn't removed the burials in the 1990s.

Charles answered that it wasn't until 1990 that Native American burial sites became protected.

``That's not an answer!'' someone shouted from the crowd. ``Answer the question!''

Cedar boxes

Charles also was asked what the Klallam want to do with more than 300 cedar boxes filled with burial remains -- as many as 11 individuals' bones in a single box.

``[The ancestors] want to be put back into what they thought was their final resting place,'' she said.

``How are you going to pay for it?'' another person yelled. ``Who's going to pay for it?''

Earlier, MacDonald had explained why the state would respect the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe's wishes:

* Excavating and reburying all the remains would have delayed fixing the Hood Canal Bridge by more time than already had been lost.

* Graving yard construction had started without an environmental impact statement. Because of the burials there, anyone could invoke the Environmental Protection Act to tie up the project in court for years.

* A national outcry against the project by Native Americans and non-Natives was building.

The controversy was obscuring the objective.

``We must fix the bridge,'' he said.

MacDonald bristled when he repeatedly was asked how the state's archaeologists had failed to find a major Native American cemetery beneath the graving yard.

``You might as well ask how is it that the Port of Port Angeles commissioners didn't know there were 300 to 600 bodies there when they sold us the property,'' he said to a chorus of catcalls.

Wife of worker

Holly Hilt, wife of a graving yard worker whose job will expire this week, asked a series of questions, including what would the state do for families like hers who moved to Port Angeles and now must sell their homes.

``We can't solve that family by family,'' MacDonald said.

Hilt asked him how lawsuits by displaced contractors and subcontractors would be paid.

``We'll work all that out,'' MacDonald said. ``Subcontractors with claims will be paid.''

MacDonald also said that halting work would be less costly -- and more timely -- than trying to excavate every burial or waging protracted legal battles.

``We are not expecting to reopen discussions with the tribe,'' he said.

Speaking for the Lower Elwha Klallam, Charles said: ``It's not going to happen on that site.''

Value of the site

Frank Farrar asked how much the site, bought for $4.7 million, was worth today.

MacDonald said he didn't know, but Blanchard Matte, a Makah Tribal Council member, said: ``The land is priceless at this moment.

``The significance is so great that you're going to respect the Lower Elwha tribe for taking a stand.''

That stand was articulated angrily by tribal member Wendy Sampson, speaking of repeated desecrations of Klallam burials and disrespect for Native Americans.

``This town can't cover up what it's done anymore,'' she said.

``This has happened for 150, 160 years. It hasn't ever been stopped.

``Somebody needed to stop it, and it's been stopped.''

MacDonald noted that the tribe has a big interest in the Port Angeles economy.

Dennis Sullivan, Lower Elwha vice chairman, said the tribe makes a big contribution -- $4.8 million in payroll alone.

``We're here. We are part of this community,'' he said, adding that the tribe had been so from the start.

``When Port Angeles settlers came, my ancestors were here to welcome them,'' he said.

Note of reconciliation

Tim Thompson, the negotiator the Transportation Department has hired to try to resolve what will happen to the abandoned graving yard, tried to end the meeting on a note of reconciliation.

``Respect each other a whole lot more,'' he told the audience, ``or there's no way to move forward.

``You have to deal with each other in order for us all to prosper. You have to figure out a path together.

``And anybody in this room who says, `It can't be done,' is flat-out wrong.''



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