Throughout the night the Sea Lion rocked gently as she moved though the gentle swells of the Pacific Ocean. The night passage took our vessel 120 miles from the harbor of Westport, slightly north of the Columbia River, to the small town of Neah Bay located just around Cape Flattery, the most westerly tip of Washington State.
There was no wind, and the prevailing world seemed wrapped in a mist blanket…all sounds and movement muffled by low and heavy fog. As breakfast was being served, the Sea Lion eased her way dockside into the north Marina in the town of Neah Bay. Fishing boats were returning from a full night of fishing, moving like ghosts through the mist and finding a slip in the same marina as the Sea Lion.
Our morning would be spent here with the Makah Nation, the Native Peoples who have called this northern tip of Washington State their home for thousands of years. We were greeted by tribal member Theresa Parker, who had arranged transportation to the Makah Research and Cultural Center. Many of us took the opportunity to walk the half-mile to the center, and enjoy the scenery in this remote corner of the world. Escorted by local dogs and greeted by longtime residents, we made our way east on the main road that led through town.
Once inside the interpretative Center, our group divided into two smaller groups and we began a journey back in time, through interpretation provided by two Native guides. This museum is dedicated to one of the most important and extensive archeological digs in the United States. The Lake Ozette dig represents the most complete intact recovery of items representing life in an ancient Northwest Coast village. The Makah people hold the materials within this museum very dear. The building houses thousands of artifacts that celebrate the recovery of a community buried in mud for nearly one thousand years. The uncovered community at Lake Ozette is not only a reminder of their longtime residence to the area, but lessons about the past lives of their ancestors. The museum preserves those lessons so they can be carried into the future to teach many generations to follow.
In 1970, a large section of a cliff sloughed off onto a beach located on the coast just north of the Lake Ozette trail. Revealed in this small landslide were the front edges of a long house, along with several small catches of trade beads and the obvious location of a once thriving community of Makah people. Several years of extensive work went into recovering as much as possible from this dig, and then moving those artifacts into storage in preparation for the building that would some day house every item that was found. Both our groups were escorted through many displays of pieces that represented the everyday life of the ancestors of the Makah people…western red cedar canoes, paddles, a myriad of tools for many tasks, cedar bark clothing, carvings, shells and an extensive collection of trade beads. The end of our tour brought us into a reconstructed long house; in the actual size, low lighting, and a slight smell of dried fish and a phenomenal mural showing a view out over the Pacific Ocean with Tatush Island set in the distance…a front porch view anyone could have loved, today or one thousand years ago!
Walking back to the Sea Lion, we could hear the voices of bald eagles overhead as the mists cleared from the waters in front of Neah Bay. The visuals, the sounds, and the smell of the sea mixed with our thoughts about the stories from the elders we had just met, reminding many of us how an object can hold stories from the past. What stories could some of those objects tell? Trade beads, which still to this day are held as objects of great value were, and are still given and considered a significant exchange between people. Individually faceted blue glass beads, crafted in Europe as much as 300 years ago, can still be found in old village sights up and down the Northwest coast of North America. They are restrung and exchanged again, their value and gift-giving strength as strong as it was when they were first presented to Native peoples so many years ago.