Controversy at Cherry Point site WA, 45WH1

Foreshore near 45WH1.  Source: Re-Sources.

Foreshore near 45WH1. Source: Re-Sources.

I haven’t been following the story at all, but there seems to be quite the controversy going on at Cherry Point, not far north of Bellingham on the coast of Washington State (map).  This large site, in Lummi Nation territory and known to them as Xwe’ chi’ eXen, has seen a lot of archaeological work over the years: about 300 cubic metres was  excavated in a series of WWU fieldschools in the 1970s and 80s under the direction of Garland Grabert. Dating back to at least 3500 years old, has some unusual features, such as being on a wave cut bank over a cobble beach with unusual offshore topography, suggesting proximity to a reef-netting site.

As its site number indicates, it’s the first site recorded by archaeologists in Whatcom County – which usually means it’s a very prominent site.  Indeed, it’s both culturally and scientifically important, and, unfortunately, has seen a lot of impact and is currently threatened. The source of the problem is a major coal port which is being planned. Interestingly enough, when the developer jumped the gun and started core-sampling the site before authorization, they were  taken to court and recently fined 1.6 million dollars.  Which is a lot of dollars.

Porpoise remains from 45WH1.  Source: Dubeau thesis.

Porpoise remains from 45WH1. Source: Dubeau thesis.

The legal action was instigated by RE Sources for Local Communities, a local non-profit. As the Portland Tribune article, which is the best overview of the settlement, notes, it is almost inconceivable that such a large company with it’s long experience in gaining permits did not know it was violating procedures:

According to a document the company submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers four months prior to the non-permitted activities at the site, Pacific International Terminals knew the exact location of site 45WH1 and had said that “no direct impacts to site 45WH1 are anticipated as the project has been designed to avoid impacts within the site boundaries.”

In the document, the company said that to mitigate potential impacts it would have an archaeologist on hand for any work done within 200 feet of site 45WH1. The company also acknowledged that it needed an “inadvertent discovery plan” in case human remains or other artifacts were uncovered, and that it would be required to consult with the Lummi tribe under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act before any work could begin at the site. Pacific International Terminals did none of those things.

“By going ahead and doing it illegally and then saying, ‘oh sorry,’ but actually having the data now, it allows them to start planning now,” said Knoll Lowney, one of the lawyers who represented RE Sources in its lawsuit against the terminal’s backers. “That way if they get their permits someday, they’re ready to build right then.”

It’s not even close to the most egregious archaeological violation seen by the Lummi but it sure is welcome to see such a large fine levied, which also reflects damage to local wetlands.  The suggestion that the company went ahead and did their study now knowing a fine would be coming, in order to save time later, rings all too true.  It wouldn’t be the first company to find it was easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

There is more information from RE Sources here and here (the latter of which appears to break confidentiality around the exact site location).  Quite a few background documents seem to have leaked out here, which appear to show the Lummi withdrawing from management agreements about the site brokered by US Army Corps of Engineers (who do a lot of federal archaeology in the USA).  The excellent article I linked above goes into this angle somewhat, and there is more background from crosscut here.

Lummi Nation then-Chair Cliff Cultee (left) and Hereditary Chair Bill James with the check they will burn at Cherry Point. Photo: Floyd McKay Source:

Lummi Nation then-Chair Cliff Cultee (left) and Hereditary Chair Bill James with the million-dollar check they will burn at Cherry Point. Photo: Floyd McKay Source:

But it’s a further  point of interest is that for some reason the Lummi chose not to join in the lawsuit. Will they see any benefit from the settlement money?  It is not clear where this money will go. It’s welcome that settlers launched a legal action to help protect a pre-contact archaeological site – at least it shows concern – but at the same time does this reflect the will of the descendent communities?  It would be good to know more about this.

In any case, maybe 1.6 million will turn out to be just the cost of doing business for this enormous project at Xwe’ chi’ eXen, or maybe a definable good will come from it.  Right now it’s a little hard to know what to think: I’m as against big coal ports as the next guy in pyjmas, but it is maybe a tiny bit unsettling if archaeology is being co-opted by environmentalists as an instrument to be used situationally or strategically, without Native American consent. The goals of environmentalists and those of aboriginal groups may map closely but they certainly do not map completely. If you’re close to the project in one way or another, then feel free to clarify these issues in the comments below.

By the way, if you want to learn more about this important archaeological site, you can download what appears to be a very well done faunal analysis thesis (mammals) by Mathew Dubeau of WWU, which gives a lot of background information.  It’s from 2012 and on first glance it looks like a top piece of work. It also looks like a thesis on historic fish traps at the site was written, which would be interesting to see but it’s not online (yet).  And credit to the under-rated WWU Anthropology Department for facilitating and supervising the analysis material from decades past.

Butchered deer and elk bones from 45WH1.  Source: Dubeau thesis.

Butchered deer and elk bones from 45WH1. Source: Dubeau thesis.

9 responses to “Controversy at Cherry Point site WA, 45WH1

  1. Thanks for the alert!


  2. It is my understanding that the Lummi dropped out of the settlement out of protest that they could be “paid off” for the damage to their ancestral site. The Lummi have been very active and very vocal about the development at Cherry Point, and their recent elections show a strong stance against the destruction of their ancestral sites and infringement of their treaty rights. I don’t think that they are being “co-opted” by environmentalists. I think that the archaeology is just another issues in which the developer does not appear to be following the law and regulations.


  3. Hi Kevin,
    I didn’t mean to imply the Lummi themselves were co-opted, but that a site with which they strongly identify was co-opted.
    But even as I write that sentence it sort of makes me uneasy to make that distinction. What I was reacting to, I think, was my own discomfort in being one of the self-appointed stewards of the archaeological record. It’s a kind of appropriation in a way. I’m not losing a huge amount of sleep over it but I’m definitely aware of it in myself, and maybe projected it outwards some too.
    Anyway, if I read you correctly, they did not want to be compensated with cash for the destruction brought by the development, and therefore did not sign on to the lawsuit?
    Your comment does very concisely summarize what I read about the circumstances around the symbolic burning of the cheque, for example.

    Hi Helen – thanks for your comment.


  4. ” self-appointed steward of the archaeological record”? This blog is in the best tradition of journalism. I dont think you should lose huge amounts of sleep over drawing peoples attention to whats going on.


  5. Although I of course see the Lummi at the top of the list when it comes to having an opinion on any damage to the archaeological site, I also believe that non native people from the area also have a right to see that important prehistoric sites are not damaged. The scientific data in the site has a special meaning to the local tribe, but it is meaningful to all of us, native or not. Maybe you can hang your guardian hat on that?


  6. Valerie – my point was meant to be more along the lines of encouraging archaeologists to reflect on how they became vested in their proprietary vision of the archaeological record. I’m not giving mine up readily, but it’s good to think about, especially in an unusual context like this one where the Lummi withdrew or declined to be involved in the lawsuit.

    Dan – hi, good to hear from you. Hope all is well. I do believe in the universalizing of cultural heritage within bounds. I know we can’t protect everything that ever was and have said so on many occasions, or we’d be knee deep in the past and really, no thanks. But it’s a delicate issue, it seems to me, of how to universalize and yet not appropriate the past.


  7. I meant to add, this is a really fine blog post by Chris Webster at DigiTech, drawing on this controversy and referencing this post. I really reccommend giving it a read – it’s the perspective of a US CRM-oriented archaeologist and not just the rantings of a Canadian academic blogger avoiding his day job.


  8. One more comment: in reference to the appropriation issue, I love this image from the cəsnaʔəm site (Marpole Site – DhRs1) vigils, which I tool from their facebook page:

    Musqueam History is BC History

    Musqueam History is BC History indeed. And vice versa?


  9. There’s a podcast discussion by some CRM professionals (consulting archaeologists) which uses this blog post as a take-off point. The discussion of Cherry Point and subsequent round table on consulting ethics etc starts at about 51:30 of this podcast:

    (the lower, larger of the two audio links on that page is the only one which worked for me)


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