Monday, September 22, 2008

ANCESTORS REBURIAL

It is hard to explain what the last five years have been like for the Elwha People. The Tsewhitzen village has been in existence since at least 2,700 years. Just how many more years was never determined because excavation had been stopped by the Elwha Tribe.

The Washington State Department of Transportation had chosen Port Angeles as the site to build a graving yard to repair the aging Hood Canal Bridge. The City of Port Angeles and Washington State and the Elwha Tribe knew the village was there. Test drilling indicated no human habitation. Construction began.

The Elwha Tribe was consulted only when the first human remains were found. The State people said my Business Committee, they call themselves the Tribal Council, told the State that they could have the site, the Ancestors, everything for 50 million dollars. The State said they laughed. My Business Committee bartered and kept dropping their price. They wound up taking the 3.4 million that the State originally offered.

The State interpreted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to mean the return of human remains only. They did not care that they destroyed priceless and irreplaceable artifacts. They excavated with a backhoe.

Tribal members were hired to dig up the remains of their own ancestors. They worked hard to stay ahead of the State’s voracious machines.

Some of the graves were from the smallpox and influenza times. We were reminded that at one time this government tried to kill all of the First Peoples of this land.

Our Elders began having strokes and heart attacks. Some fell. Tribal members began having episodes of grief and anger.

People from Port Angeles were angry with us. They saw the Tribe as being in the way of much needed jobs. Hate against Native Americans hadn’t been this high since the Makah Whale hunt.

Racist cowards phoned the Tribal Center with death threats. One said he could sit on top of the hill and shoot us as we came out of our houses.

A Tribal member made a quick stop in downtown Port Angeles. When she came back to her car someone had thrown bones into the back seat. Tests revealed it was from a barbecue.

The whites didn’t understand why we considered our Ancestors remains sacred. They thought they were just dead bones.

I don’t remember if it was a State employee or just a callous racist that said, “They consider everything to be sacred.” It was getting in the way of their progress.

We couldn’t understand why the white people couldn’t see the sacredness of life.

Our People were being “ghosted.” There were knocks on doors. No one was there. There were footsteps in halls, again no one was there. Adults couldn’t see them. Some children could.

The Ancestors spoke to those who could hear and understand them. They wanted this atrocity to stop. They wanted to be reburied.

A councilman called on the Indian Shakers for help. He would become paralyzed at dark time. He would be able to move again when daylight came.

The father of one of the first babies to be excavated was trying to talk with our councilman. The Ancestor had placed his baby in the councilmans hands and spoke to him. He said “Take care of my baby.” He wanted us to pray for her and return her to her burial.

The Business Committee would not listen. One of our members started crying and couldn’t quit. She didn’t know why. We were called in to pray for her. The Ancestors said hard times were coming for the Elwha. She was crying for those who would be crying. They said that when the deaths started the Shakers would not be able to stop them.

They also said we would be held accountable because we hadn’t stood up to the politicians and demanded that they do the right thing. As the Spiritual wing of the Tribe we should have done what was right.

Our young people worked in the rain, mud, snow and burning sun. People from other Tribes said they wouldn’t touch the dead. Our youth answered back that it was an honor to work for the ancestors, to save their remains from being desecrated one more time. It broke my heart to watch them bravely go to work knowing that they were placing their lives on the line for other people’s greed.

What happened at Tsewhitzen should never have happened. It was all about greed. The state wanted a graving yard at the cheapest price available. The city of Port Angeles wanted jobs. The Elwha Business Committee wanted the best price they could get.

Anger and depression grew. People were getting sick. I knew we couldn’t endure this much longer.

Shakers from Skokomish asked me why we didn’t have a protest at the graving yard site. They wanted a march on the Department of Transportation and the Governors mansion. They wanted to tell the State how they felt about their treatment of our Ancestors.

I dragged my feet because I thought that in this time of Homeland Security someone would be killed by the State or the feds. Racism was so high it was likely that townspeople would bring out their guns against us.

I had asked my friend Keith to put a petition to stop the excavation on the internet. We worked around the clock to get out the news of what was happening. We focused pressure on the State of Washington.

We crashed a tour that was being given at the site. We were assessing the site for our ability to protect ourselves. It was wide open to invasion from water and land. There was a hill where snipers could pick us off.

The body count had reached over 300 and we had millions of shards of human remains. I didn’t think my Tribe could hold out much longer. I chose a date for our occupation and demonstration.

We would take over our village site on the anniversary of our Treaty. We would march on the capitol.

Keith and I talked about the dangers and decided to go ahead with our plans.

His wife wanted to do a healing ceremony from her Tribe. I asked our business manager for use of a room in the Tribal Center for her ceremony.

He told me that he couldn’t approve a ceremony. I told him I wasn’t asking his permission. I was asking for use of a room.

He told me that he only spoke to the Shaker Minister about spiritual matters. He was following our Tribal chairwoman’s hiding behind sovereignty to not talk with Tribal members.

They stole our idea for a healing ceremony. They set it for Treaty day.

It was disappointing. There was no healing ceremony. They had asked the Shakers to pray and sing. They ignored us.

Every politician in Clallam County, Port Angeles, and the Elwha Tribe spoke. We stood in freezing wind and rain.

Finally David demanded that we have our turn to pray. He led us in songs.

I spoke when he finished. I thanked the People for their dedication and patience. I thanked them for standing in the freezing rain and winds to listen to every politician in Clallam County speak.

It suddenly occurred to my chairwoman to get everyone out of the cold. She sent one of our young men to lead a procession around the dig. We have one way to turn that unravels. It frees you. She sent them the wrong way. Tribal members wouldn’t walk that way.

It took years for all the politicians to agree to do the right thing. Meanwhile the deaths started. It was horrible.

About a year and a half ago we had our worst time. Within a week three of our Tribal members had died.

A father died of cancer. He left a young family. Many of our people seemed to die of cancer during this time. One was a little girl.

A car load of teenagers plunged into our river killing one of our girls and a Makah boy. The FBI was suspicious because their friends tried for an hour to rescue them before calling the police. They didn’t understand that our youth don’t see the police as friends anymore than my generation did.

My mother had been in the hospital for a month. So had a Makah Elder that was a familiar face on the Canoe Journeys. She died the day before my mom in the same manner.

It seems that the Makah fate was intertwined with Tsewhitzen as much as ours was.

My brother in law died a few weeks later from cancer. It was only at his graveside service that I felt all of our losses. I gazed in horror at the two other new graves.

I had stayed with my mother in the hospital and didn’t attend the other two funerals. I didn’t make it to the Makah Elders for the same reason.

The same thing had happened to other families on the rez. We were weary from crying. It seemed that the open grave that was Tsewhitzen would take every Tribal member to fill it.

I had a dream that my chairwoman and I were hauled in front of the Ancestors. There was a brilliant white light. They spoke through it. They said that it was time for the sacrifice of the Chief.

I woke up angry. I asked Why was I there? I knew she had never sacrificed for anything in her life. She probably never would. I asked myself if I was supposed to make the sacrifice for her.

I spoke with a cousin about my dream. He said the message was for the council. I was the witness and the one to deliver the message. I did and it was ignored along with the other messages I delivered.

It took five years for the date of the burial to come. I had given up hope.

On September 12, 2008 our prayers began. Our chairwoman had never done anything about Tsewhitzen without intense press coverage. I expected the same during the burial.

On Saturday Doug McDonald showed up. He had been Secretary of the Department of Transportation. He gave a moving speech about healing the community of Port Angeles and the Elwha Reservation. That day had been his son’s wedding. He came to be with us. He cried as he spoke of finally ending this issue.

He stayed with us through all our prayers. On September 15 we started the reburials. I saw one photographer documenting the reburial. I told our chairwoman that photographing work like this takes it out of the sacred. She said she understood.

We had disturbed our own Ancestors for her greed. I wanted her held responsible.

At the first dinner the Canadian Shaker sitting next to me leaned over and started talking about the damage hate does. I had always denied hating my chairwoman. I said it was her greed and actions I hated.

I admitted that I hated her. I don’t want to do it any more. I still became angry with her for having a photographer and reporter there. I tried not to let the anger turn to hate.

The Canadians knew their stuff and everything went perfectly. They taught our people to do this with gentleness and love. We couldn’t have done this without them.

I thank all the People that prayed for my Tribe as we went through this horror. Prayer is so important. I am learning the lesson of forgiveness.

Our Ancestors accepted our work and were happy to return home.

2 comments:

Keith Hunter said...

Monica: As I read the words you wrote as a Daughter of Tzewhitzen my eyes filled with tears as they have many times since this tragedy began what seems like a life time ago.

My tears carried a relief that finally thoughts had turned beyond politicians’ rhetoric and cash settlements and towards the need for taking care of the sacred business that should have been the first priority in the years since this began. I know you and so many have unyieldingly prayed for this next step to have happened.

My tears carried my residual anger that this should never have happened in the way that it did and that no justification or rationalization can ever be made in defense of this act of ethnic cleansing and “progress” after it became evident beyond speculation of the damage that was being done.

But I also had tears of gratitude for the blessing that came into my life from knowing you and having been able to grow and learn from the strength, courage and dignity that you and your community showed us all during such a difficult time. The unwavering love of the young people in your village to take care of their ancestors not matter what they had to endure. The unwavering love of your elders who encouraged us all to be the best we could be and to carry ourselves in a proper way in dealing with such a situation. And your unwavering courage and strength when it came decision time to “just do it” even when it seemed so impossible yet unavoidable that something be done.

Not a day has gone by that I have not learned from and hopefully become a better human being from what you and the other Strong People shared and blessed my life with. I am forever honored to have known you and your community in my life time. And I am forever reminded of the ability and responsibility of ordinary people in our communities to accept our ability to change what is needed to be changed even in the face of such odds against us.

Keith Hunter

Kii said...

Prayers for the Elwha people. Our cultures were given to us for a reason. We should not forget them as this episode shows.