Breaking Ground

"Breaking Ground"

Lynda V. Mapes

UW Press

288 pages - $29.95

It was going to be a boon for the timber-depressed economy of Clallam County:

In 2003, the Washington State Department of Transportation chose Port Angeles as the site of a graving yard, a massive new drydock where concrete pontoons urgently needed for repairs to the Hood Canal bridge could be manufactured.

State officials were relieved to get the project under way, and local politicians and civic boosters were ecstatic with the new jobs.

But within days of the project start, a bulldozer operator uncovered evidence of a midden - a prehistoric trash heap indicating ancient human habitation. In keeping with the protocol for dealing with such discoveries, archaeologists were brought in and, some time later, construction was halted.

"Breaking Ground" is the perfect title for this true and dramatic account of the discovery of Tse-whit-zen - one of the oldest, largest and most significant Indian villages ever found in our region.

Not only had ground been broken for the project but the conclusion to the drawn-out process that followed was groundbreaking, too:

For perhaps the first time in American history, when the interests of the dominant culture and moneyed interests were pitted against the spiritual concerns of a Native American tribe, the dominant culture backed down.

Seattle-based journalist Lynda V. Mapes uncovers how a chain of so many people, in doing their jobs adequately but not assiduously, managed to let the dry dock project proceed to the point that it became a cultural flash point as well as an

$100 million fiasco.

From state agencies to city planners, archaeological consultants and tribal councils, everyone shared in the blame.

But Mapes delves even deeper into this story - way before the dry dock conflict of 2003-2005.

The pre-contact life of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe was a hunting and gathering existence made good by bountiful natural resources. But initial brief meetings with European explorers were enough to transmit unfamiliar diseases.

When once-thriving tribes were decimated, whites found it easy to push for treaty-mandated dispossession of native lands.

Motivated by a market economy, the new settlers were in a hurry to trap animals, cut down trees, establish farms, dam rivers and build mills and factories, all of which made it difficult for tribes people to pursue their treaty-guaranteed rights to gather food in accustomed places.

Ages-old traditions were lost and customs went by the wayside. Elders no longer held the same place of importance in the tribe.

This century-and-a-half-long cultural disintegration makes the tribe's recent reassertion of its rights in the dry dock affair all the more powerful.

Of course, it was crucial that the decision-makers on the other side of the issue were willing to listen.

After talking with so many players in this story - from the workers in the trenches to the leaders on both sides - Mapes shares a moving tale of a departure from "the way things have always been done" to an approach that ultimately was more respectful, collaborative and constructive.

In our increasingly diverse society, it's a good model

to have.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at

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