A pre-construction archaeological assessment -- a survey that, in hindsight, was poorly funded and woefully incomplete -- concluded that the proposed 22-acre construction zone was not a sizable Indian burial ground or archaeologically significant area.
When bones were found shortly after excavation began, work was halted as state and federal officials consulted tribal leaders. It took until March of this year, but they worked out an agreement for the tribe to take possession of remains and for tribal members to shadow archaeologists as bones and relics were unearthed.
From left, tribe members Michael Q. Langland, Otto Ditlefsen and Alex Stevenson carry remains of Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe members near Port Angeles, Wash. Mary Anne Thomas, far right, carries a candle.
(Photos Steve Ringman -- The Seattle Times)
"We thought, then, that there might be 25 burial sites out there," said Arlene Wheeler, a planner for the tribe and its cultural resource liaison with the construction project. That number was an educated guess by archaeologists, based on the assumption that they had found an ancient refuse dump.
"From Day One, we told them that we wanted to remove all the ancestors," Wheeler said.
As part of the agreement, the state paid the tribe $3 million to deal with the remains and buy land for a new cemetery.
As summer turned into fall this year, tribal members working with archaeologists at the construction site became alarmed.
"You keep digging out more and more and more burials," said Carmen Charles, an assistant cultural liaison for the tribe, who helped unearth scores of her ancestors. "It's like, 'Oh, my God, how many are there?' We were literally out there helping them dig up and replace our history."
In the religion of the tribe and those of many other Native Americans, disturbance of ancestral graves is a fearsome thing. It is believed that when ancestors' spirits are disturbed and made restless, it may have serious consequences among the living, causing accidents, illness and death.
"When you are playing with the dead, you are putting yourself at risk," said Frances Charles, the tribe's chairwoman. "It is not a myth. It is our reality."
To try to limit the risks, she said, tribal workers rubbed ceremonial red ocher on their hands and beneath their eyes before going out to observe and participate in the exhumation of graves. When they were done for the day, they washed their hands and faces with water steeped in local snowberries -- to cleanse themselves so they would not take angry, dislocated spirits home to their families.
"I came to see the leaders of the Lower Elwha become more fearful, as there came to be no end to the number of human remains turning up," said Rice, the archaeologist for the Corps of Engineers, which licensed the construction site.
A federal law, called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, requires a halt to construction on federal land, if there is an inadvertent discovery of Indian remains. But the bones were being found on state-owned land, and the law in Washington allows work to proceed, after consultation with the affected tribe, Rice said.
Tribal leaders, after more than a year, decided that consultation had served the interests of neither the living nor the dead. They want to rebury the 300 coffins now stacked up on their reservation.
"We would like them put back where they were, so they will be at peace," Charles said.
State officials say that they will honor the tribe's decision, but that it will not be easy or cheap. Besides the loss of $58 million, terminating the bridge repair project will hurt the economy of Port Angeles, where 100 high-paid construction jobs will leave the town of 17,000.
Also, the state has found no other site on which it can build new pontoons for the old floating bridge.
"If we can't get the bridge fixed, that raises the specter of real economic dislocation in this area," said Doug MacDonald, the state secretary of transportation.