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Salvage Operation Angers Tribe, Concerns White House Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by Diedtra Henderson

An archaeologist's decision to take human remains out of state for testing without tribal consent has cost him his job, spawned state and federal investigations, earned a tiny town a rare call from the White House, and strained relations between the city of Blaine, Washington, and the Lummi Nation, which has filed a $30 million damages lawsuit against the city. Archaeologist Gordon Tucker resigned from a Denver-area consulting firm, Golder Associates, shortly after news reports of the controversy broke.

West Coast travelers headed to Canada pass through Blaine, the third-busiest border point, a city of 3,650 whose residents pay the third-highest sewage bills in Washington. Blaine wanted to replace its aging treatment plant with a new one close by, at Semiahmoo Spit, land known to be a Lummi burial plot. Golder Associates was under contract to monitor the site during construction.

Tucker notified the tribe by phone when remains were first unearthed, in accordance with procedures established by the city. Tucker's message got no reply, according to Steve Thompson, a principal at Golder. Tucker called again when more remains were found, but the answering machine was off. He did not call the tribe again.

From July 26 to August 2, Tucker unearthed remains of 44 individuals and drove them to Golder's Denver office to nondestructively analyze them to determine the individuals' ages and sex. When a tribe member's chance visit to the construction site alerted the Lummi nation to the removal of ancestral remains, Theresa Pouley, then Lummi Nation attorney, flew to Golder's Colorado headquarters and asked to see the human remains.

She was led to Golder's parking lot, where, beneath the canopy of a pickup truck, was a tangle of digging equipment and cardboard boxes containing the remains. The boxes bore the labels of apple producers.

"The No. 1 reaction was anger. Then, the No. 2 reaction was just a huge sense of sadness that other people could be so disrespectful of your grandmother or your grandfather," said Pouley. "It looked like he had packed up his stuff when he was done digging...and had not done anything with it." Tribal members were not told what tests were planned, Pouley said, and were ruffled by the mingling of human remains and equipment. They were also offended by the type of storage boxes used.

Thompson said Tucker deliberately chose to transport the remains to his office in apple boxes. "You do not put remains in museum boxes with big labels that say 'Fragile. Human Remains. Handle With Care,'" Thompson recalls Tucker telling him. "It tends to cause some problems with vandals.... [Archaeologists] try not to advertise what sorts of things are in their custody." Those remains have since been returned to the tribe.

State, federal, and tribal archaeologists had a hunch more remains would be found in the fill that had been hauled, by agreement with the city, from the construction site to a private landfill. Sure enough, skeletal remains representing another 55 individuals were discovered in that fill. Golder's was hired to salvage remains in obvious jeopardy, not to carry out a carefully controlled excavation, Thompson said in explanation of the dramatic oversight. "It would have cost more than the entire project to do the entire [excavation] under controlled conditions," he said.

The situation raised antennae at the White House, which learned of the incident from wire reports or from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and promptly called city hall, said John Hobberlin, Blaine mayor. Growing friction between the tribe and the city, however, has been a more stubborn issue. The city wants someone to reimburse the $2.5 million it spent to prepare the site and pay contracts while the project was on hold; the tribe is seeking $30 million from the city for "great emotional distress." All parties are unyielding, and an attempt to find a compromise through a mediator has stalled.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America