Remains of centuries-old Native woman buried at Tse-whit-zen

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — The remains of a native woman who likely lived on the North Olympic Peninsula centuries ago have been returned to the earth.

Lower Elwha Klallam tribal members met under rainy skies Sept. 28 to inter the remains at the tribe's Tse-whit-zen site along Marine Drive, the historic location of one of the largest prehistoric Klallam villages on the Peninsula.

“It was a funeral service that day,” said Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe.

After 73 years in the collection of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, the remains, found somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula in the 1920s, were given to the tribe earlier this summer.

The return was in concordance with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, said Megon Noble, assistant archaeology collections manager/repatriation act coordinator for the Burke Museum.

Noble said Burke Museum researchers consulted with the Olympic Peninsula's native tribes on which one should take possession of the remains because the woman's tribal affiliation could not be determined.

After discussions among tribal representatives, Noble said the Lower Elwha Klallam ultimately took the remains.

“I was so glad the tribes worked together in a really nice way, and I was glad were able to facilitate that,” Noble said.

Bill White, Lower Elwha Klallam archaeologist, said the woman likely was between 28 and 35 years old when she died.

Positively ID'd as Native American

The woman was positively identified as Native American by her skull, which had telltale signs of artificial flattening at the back, White explained.

This showed that her skull was bound when she was a baby so as to purposefully alter its shape, White said, an attribute typically found in Native American remains dated to the 1700s and 1800s.

Where exactly she was found and what tribe she belonged to, however, are still a mystery.

A man named Paul Benton removed the skull and two femurs of the woman from somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula eight to nine decades ago, Noble said.

About 20 years after the remains were discovered, a man named Dwight Benton, whose relationship to Paul Benton is not known, gave the remains to the Burke Museum with no associated burial artifacts.

The remains were labeled as a “culturally unidentifiable individual,” Noble said, because of the lack of specific information on where the woman was found and artifacts that might have given clues to her tribal heritage.

“In those cases, there's often very little context about how [the remains] were acquired and when,” Noble said.

In 1990, the federal government enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which required all agencies that accepted federal money and possessed Native American cultural items, including human remains, to return those items to affiliated tribes, Noble said.

However, regulations governing what should be done with remains whose affiliation could not be determined, like the remains interred last week, were not put in place until 2010, Noble said.

“They were sort of in this legal limbo that first 20 years [after] the law was passed,” Noble said.

Since 2010, Noble said Burke Museum researchers in collaboration with the University of Washington's anthropology department have returned 62 sets of culturally unidentifiable remains to tribes across the state.

Fewer than five such remains are left in the Burke Museum's collection.

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: October 05. 2013 11:14PM
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