Breaking Ground: The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the Unearthing of Tze-whit-zen Village
November 4, 2013
Review By Bruce Miller
Breaking Ground, by journalist Lynda Mapes, is a compelling, well told story of a Coast Salish tribe in Washington State – the Lower Elwha – and its fraught relations with the settler community that grew up around it. The pivotal event that has drawn Mapes’s attention, and which she described in previous years in the Seattle Times, is the rediscovery of a 2,700-year-old ancestral village site, Tze-whit-zen, and, eventually, hundreds of burials at Port Angeles, the location selected by the state for the construction of a massive dry dock facility. These developments, after $90 million had been invested in the site, precipitated several years of anguish and debate over how to understand Aboriginal heritage and how to determine the state’s obligations to American Indian communities. Eventually, the state abandoned the project and provided funding for the reburial, at the original location, of the remains of the ancestors.
To make this contemporary drama meaningful, Mapes describes the events and processes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that came to dramatically alter the circumstances of the Lower Elwha. Early chapters give broad-stroke glimpses of Spanish and English exploring expeditions in the region; the coming of epidemic disease, particularly smallpox; the imposition of a US legal regime; and the 1855 Treaty of Point-no-Point. But Mapes also examines the smaller and more localized, including the history of successive, relatively short-lived settler construction projects on the village site in the decades prior to the dry dock. One such project was one of the world’s biggest lumber mills. Mapes never loses sight of how the gradual alienation of their territory and resources has affected the Lower Elwha both individually and collectively, and she moves deftly between the historical and the personal.
Mapes is concerned to make clear the historical amnesia of the settler population regarding the Aboriginal historical presence on the landscape. This loss of social connection is a pervasive and perplexing issue in settler societies, and Breaking Ground is at its best in tackling this subject. Mapes reveals that the village site had been documented, even as recently as 1991, by archaeologists and is clearly indicated in an 1853 US coastal survey map of False Dungeness Harbor, which is reprinted on popular decorator items and shows up in many Port Angeles homes and stores. There is a long history, Mapes reveals, of digging into burials during various construction projects. Yet there was a only brief, inadequate archaeological examination of the site before construction started.
Mapes’s approach to this issue is to avoid creating yet another misleading binary of bad camps and good camps. She reveals the intense pressure on all parties to come to quick, often thoughtless, resolutions about archaeological projects and tribal patrimony when money is at stake. She notes that tribal members still carry oral histories about the village site, yet were not consulted by project managers, even after burials were found. She points to the alienation many Aboriginal people feel in their relations with the mainstream community and their disinclination to share information about their own community history. But Mapes also notes the differences of opinion within the Lower Elwha community and the failure of the tribal council to adequately consult its own people. She makes clear that oral tradition is hard to hear and to comprehend, and she emphasizes the mainstream’s devaluation of this important form of knowledge.
When the story of the Tze-whit-zen village hit the press I was among those who wished to learn more about the site. Mapes’s own accounts in the Times provided tantalizing information – a photo and short description – of eight hundred etched stones, some more than a thousand years old, which are said to contain a wide range of information, including weaving patterns and possibly ways of treating epidemics or handling a breech birth. But Breaking Ground indicates that money is no longer available for an analysis of the artefacts unearthed by a contract archaeology firm. The artefacts themselves remain in the Burke Museum, at the University of Washington, their story untold. Breaking Ground is not an academic work, although it contains a great deal of value to the scholarly world as well as to the general public. It is unfair to ask the book to do the work of another sort of publication. Still, I remain anxious to learn more about this site.
Mapes has handled historical and anthropological information carefully and prudently, but there are a few inaccuracies with regard to detail as well as instances of inadequate interpretation. For example, on page 49, George Gibbs, an important figure in nineteenth-century west coast history, is merely described as a lawyer, implying, I think, that he was a sharpie in his dealings with tribes during the buildup to treaty negotiations. The Duke of York (Chits-a-mah-han), another key figure and a Klallam leader, is noted as being “beloved by whites for his propensity to dress in their clothes – and signal them of trouble brewing” (50-51). This is an unfair characterization of a complex man who developed his own strategic approach to accommodating colonialism. Finally, there is no index or bibliography, and this hinders scholarly use.