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Ancient Native American Artifacts: Seattle to return items to tribe

Upper Skagits’ ancestral objects found during work

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Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit tribe for natural and cultural resources, holds a fish club that is part of the artifacts discovered near Ross Lake being turned over to the tribe, on March 16. Andrea Weiser, senior archaeologist for Seattle City Light, is at left.
Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit tribe for natural and cultural resources, holds a fish club that is part of the artifacts discovered near Ross Lake being turned over to the tribe, on March 16. Andrea Weiser, senior archaeologist for Seattle City Light, is at left. (steve ringman/Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

MARBLEMOUNT — Until Seattle City Light built a company-town dining hall a century ago, until the building was renovated a decade ago and until they were dug up during that renovation, the 270 stone artifacts likely sat undisturbed for millennia upon millennia.

The objects, found on the shores of the Skagit River, represent the remains of an ancient village of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe.

When Seattle built three dams on the Skagit River in the early 20th century to provide the city with electricity, the city also built a company town for its workers. The town, Newhalem, was built on the site of, and named after, the Upper Skagit village of Da’áylib.

Found during Seattle City Light’s renovation of the Gorge Inn, Newhalem’s dining hall, the artifacts include tools, hammerstones, scrapers, a club and a projectile point, likely the tip of a spear or an arrow used to kill a mountain goat.

The objects would have been used for forming and sharpening tools, cutting, scraping, chopping, splitting wood.

Now, thousands of years after they were formed, 100 years after they were first disturbed and nine years after they were discovered, Seattle is set to return the artifacts to the Upper Skagit tribe. The return comes after years of research to officially determine the provenance of the ancient objects.

The artifacts are currently stored at a curation facility at the North Cascades National Park ranger station in Marblemount.

Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit tribe, held one of the tools, an oblong granite club, about a foot long, that was likely used for killing fish. The Upper Skagit tribe had hunting and fishing villages along the Skagit River from Mount Vernon to Newhalem for thousands of years before Westerners arrived.

While it’s hard to pin an exact date on the artifacts, many of them are likely around 4,000 to 9,000 years old, archaeologists involved with the project said. The tribe’s first contact with Westerners was only around 170 years ago.

“It’s always powerful to me as a tribal member to hold these artifacts,” Schuyler said. “I could just, you know, feel their presence.

“And it’s just a deep inner meaning to me personally to be involved in working with the tribe and to handle these artifacts that our ancestors made,” Schuyler said. “We all think of the context of the last few hundred years of history of the United States, but that’s just a blink of an eye in the history of our occupation here in the Skagit Valley.”

Schuyler said he’s occasionally found artifacts in the Skagit Valley over the years. When he does, he reburies them further, as the tribe would rather they remain in place.

In this case, given the long-ago construction and the more-recent renovation, that was impossible, so repatriation was the best option.

The Seattle City Council voted 8-0 last week to return the artifacts to the Upper Skagit tribe. Once Mayor Bruce Harrell signs the legislation, which a spokesperson said he will do this week, the transfer of ownership will begin. It’s been a long time coming.

Seattle City Light began renovation of the Gorge Inn in 2013, replacing decaying beams and boards and digging a new foundation and utility trenches under the historic building.

The location wasn’t a documented archaeological site, but the city was aware of the broader history of Newhalem as a historical and culturally important site. So the city hired an archaeological firm to oversee the renovation.

As work began, the firm would sift soil through screens, checking for historical artifacts. They found forks and spoons and antique mustard jars and all sorts of relics of decades of communal dining.

“The soil was very mixed, kind of like you’d expect at a construction site,” said Andrea Weiser, staff archaeologist for Seattle City Light.

In the same soil, they also found much older objects. They found rocks whose unnatural shearing could only have come from human action, from striking, pounding, cutting.

The objects were “primarily discovered from a highly disturbed context,” the archaeological consultant wrote, likely the result of less careful construction work when the Gorge Inn was built in 1925.

The city reached out to several tribes in the area — primarily the Upper Skagit, the Sauk-Suiattle and the Swinomish — for insight on the artifacts.

“The tribe (Upper Skagit) did notify the city that we would like the artifacts returned,” Schuyler said. “They’re rightfully the tribe’s as they belonged to our ancestors and it was morally right for the city to return them to the tribe.”

The city didn’t disagree, but they wanted to be sure the artifacts were returned to the correct tribe, as several Skagit-area tribes covered similar ground.

“You don’t want to accidentally give a collection of artifacts to a tribe that wasn’t there,” Weiser said. “Not that we didn’t believe Upper Skagit had a claim to it, but that we had to corroborate it with all different lines of evidence to the satisfaction of everybody else.”

The process took years. There was ethnographic research, they reached out to various tribes for records and information potentially connected to the artifacts. They consulted interviews and oral histories.

“It’s a delicate and time consuming effort to have those confrontations and make sure that people are satisfied because we’re engaging, basically, in intertribal politics and we don’t belong there,” said Chris Townsend, director of natural resources at Seattle City Light. “It’s complex and takes time.”

They analyzed the projectile point and found it was made of Hozomeen chert, a sedimentary rock specific to the North Cascades.

“Hozomeen, Hozomeen, most beautiful mountain I ever seen,” Jack Kerouac wrote in “Desolation Angels,” the novel describing his time as a fire lookout in the North Cascades.

They did a blood protein residue analysis on the projectile point, comparing microscopic extracts against samples from bear, bovine, cat, deer, dog, goat, sheep, and trout.

The conclusion: “The result is most likely a positive to the presence of goat protein.”

Ultimately it was the the nature of the artifacts, combined with the documented history of the Da?áylib village, which proved conclusive, Weiser said. (The village name, Da?áylib, means goat snare in the Lushootseed language.)

While other tribes traveled through the area, only the Upper Skagit had a village there. Weiser pointed to the heavy club as a prime example.

“That’s a special thing and it’s not the kind of thing that you carry around transient camp sites,” she said. “The evidence that had already been collected was, OK, that does say village to me, you know, it’s not just another piece of flake-stone which we find all over the landscape in places that people have been using.”

Ultimately, no other tribes made specific claims to the artifacts, Weiser said.

The artifacts won’t be going anywhere. They’ll remain at the Marblemount facility, curated and cared for by the National Park Service, and not available for public viewing. However, they’ll be available to researchers and to tribe members.

Someday, if the Upper Skagit builds a museum, they may be moved. But there are no immediate plans for that.

“They’re safe here for now, and particularly under our control,” Schuyler said. “Our ancestors would be very pleased now that these are back in our possession.”

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