From Living on the Peninsula magazine
Story and photos by Jerry Kraft
When more than two dozen Native American and First Nations canoes arrived on the beach in Port Angeles in July, as one stop on this year’s 20th annual Paddle Journey, representatives of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe met them. Each canoe leader asked permission to come ashore, and from the land, Elwha young and old extended the welcome. Who better than these people, whom we now know have inhabited this place for at least 2,700 years?
“This is one of the prides and joys of the elders and the community,” said Francis Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha.
“The paddle journeys are important for all the people of this region. Everybody really pulls together for all the community events. The songs, the dances, the sharing of traditional food are all really important things for our young people and for everyone else in knowing and preserving our heritage. Especially the very young kids love being out with their families and camping and on the water and in all the activities.
Seeing all their relatives and long-time friends from different nations, I’ve heard many kids say they wish it could happen every day.”
Over the generations, the families of all the Coast Salish tribes have melded and maintaining contact is vital to preserving both their individual cultural identities and the common history they share. That history is particularly immediate for the Lower Elwha.
With the extraordinary discovery of the settlement of Tse-whit-zen in 2003, the tribal members found themselves literally face to face with their ancestors, the remains of more than 300 people found during the initiation of a huge construction project. It was the largest, oldest and most important archeological discovery ever made in the Puget Sound area.
It also was the beginning of a contentious, painful and defining controversy for the Lower Elwha and their neighbors in Port Angeles. On one side was a multimillion dollar construction project feeding jobs and money into the local economy. On the other were the ancestors’ remains and artifacts, the remaining record of a people who lived here from the time that Rome was founded and before. The Department of Transportation halted the project at a loss of around $90 million, while the Elwha continue to seek resolution with their ancestors.
While there still are some bad feelings on both sides, that construction project is over and done and the stockpile still is providing an astonishing number of artifacts, discovered on a daily basis by the Elwha. Some of those artifacts will be on display in the new Heritage Center, set to open in January 2010.
“This will not be a museum,” Charles emphasized, “but a cultural center. We want it to be a place where we can connect our young people with their heritage, with the arts and crafts of our people. Food is a very important part of our culture and we also want to use the center to pass on our food traditions.”
She also said she hoped it would provide a place for an employment center, for computer access and for access to resources at Peninsula College.
“The tribe is growing very fast and we’re outgrowing our facilities,” Charles said. A new housing project on the reservation will provide 20 new units in the next year, with many more to follow. The Health Center, which has been providing care to the tribe for many years, moved into its beautiful new facility just off U.S. Highway 101 about five years ago.
“We are really expanding our veterans outreach,” Charles said, “both for native veterans and for the 12,000 other veterans of Clallam County.” They hope to open a veterans clinic at the health center.
At the Tribal Center, the Lower Elwha Klallam’s many administrative and community services also are outgrowing the building.
“We’re moving some of our administrative offices to higher ground,” Charles said. “We provide mental health services here, as well as child welfare services, and we have an elders program that provides daily lunches.”
In addition, the beautiful gym is used for all sorts of community and recreational activities, from dinners and dances to sporting events for Indian youths. Eventually, Charles would like to see a new tribal center facility built closer to the highway. The current site is about four miles away, which also is where the new Elwha Casino is located.
Open only a few months, the casino has been a great success and already the tribe is working on developing a larger facility with more varied gaming than the electronic machines now offered. It is only one of the many ambitious plans for the Lower Elwha. In all that, they are committed to maintaining a good relationship with the non-native population while providing for the health and well-being of the tribe.
“We try very hard to support local business and the local economy,” Charles said. “The paddle journeys, for example, involve a lot of spending with local businesses and we use local contractors as much as we can.” They also are in constant association and cooperation with various government agencies both for social programs and for major building projects.
The current, monumental undertaking for the tribe is the removal of the Elwha River and Glines Canyon dams and the restoration of the Elwha River to its natural habitat. It is the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. The Elwha Dam, built in 1910, and the Glines Canyon Dam, built in 1927, virtually eliminated the salmon runs that had been a central feature of Elwha culture.
As a result of the 1992 Elwha River Restoration Act, the dams are being removed to restore salmon habitat. The $308 million project will require the construction of two water-treatment facilities, as well as a new tribal hatchery and a greenhouse for restoring native vegetation to the river.
“We are very involved right now with the hatchery plans and river restoration,” Charles said. Enormously complex in terms of its ecological impact, the restoration of the 45-mile Elwha River and the elimination of Lake Aldwell and Lake Mills will change the area for generations to come.
Perhaps more than any other people on the North Olympic Peninsula, the Lower Elwha Klallam understand the impact of generations, of history and tradition and cultural immediacy. From Tse-whit-sen to the restored river, from their community support and services to their stewardship of the land and the waters, they feel in their bones the importance of maintaining a sense of continuity with past, present and future Elwha. As they stand on the beach and welcome the other nations of the area who have come to visit, they are deeply aware that they are the people who have stayed.