It’s up to City of Oak Harbor to mend fences in bones debacle | Sound off

By Melissa Duffy

Our city officials and staff work on behalf of Oak Harbor citizens. Laws regarding how to manage archeological sites are established.

I expect the people who work on behalf of our town to be law abiding. The City of Oak Harbor personnel who managed the road project for Pioneer Street were informed in writing by state archeology department prior to construction that an archeological assessment was required before proceeding.

Pioneer Way and the areas nearby are known burial and archeological sites. People in charge of this project were notified, then went ahead, in complete disregard for the law.

What was in the mind of the staff who did this?  Was it concern about the added cost of potential construction delays in a time of limited funds? Was it worry about increased project costs if state archeology rules were followed? Clearly, the decision was a big mistake.

Our Oak Harbor community is already bearing additional costs due to this wrong decision.

As I read the various letters to the editor in the Whidbey News-Times  in response to what has taken place, mostly what I observe is complete cultural misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of important Coast Salish values.

Whereas now a majority of people in Western culture value property and possessions as our  “wealth,” in Coast Salish traditional value system true “wealth” has always been found in community, family and relationships.

Traditional Coast Salish people know who they are descended from and related to for many, many generations. Both living elders who carry and pass on traditional ways as well as ancestors have tremendous value and importance in Salish Culture and are held in highest esteem.

In one Salish language, there isn’t even a word for “I,” there is only a word for “we.” “We” the extended community of both living and dead is of essential cultural importance. To disparage this Salish value of respect for ancestors is equivalent to spitting on our American flag.

The First Peoples of Oak Harbor lived here for more than 10,000 years. More than 90 percent of Northwest Coast First People died directly as a result of encounters with trappers and settlers through smallpox, epidemics and other means.

For those who remained, people from different tribal groupings were forced off their ancestral lands and concentrated on reservations. They were expected to assimilate.

Coast Salish territories were encroached upon and taken over without just compensation. Children were forcibly removed from parents, sent to boarding schools and forbidden to speak their traditional language. When they did, they were beaten.

Laws were passed that only recently were repealed making their traditional religious practices illegal, and making it against the law to practice their traditional economic system, the gift-giving peschelt known in English as the  “potlach” system.

Every attempt possible was made to destroy Coast Salish culture, values and traditions.

In spite of this, certain values remain alive and strong within Coast Salish culture. A strong core continues: to have respect for and hold sacred the community’s elders and ancestors.

Complete disregard for this core cultural value is unacceptable and, fortunately, also illegal.

Our town cannot afford to lose $9 million in a lawsuit. Our city staff are already stretched thin with existing budget cuts.

As a town citizen I both mourn the utter cultural insensitivity and disrespect of Salish ancestors and the harm this has brought Coast Salish people, as well as mourn the potential destruction of our town’s wellbeing through a lawsuit that would be financially ruinous to our small town.

My hope, is that through positive actions taken by our town to do the right thing and make full reparations, that this lawsuit will not proceed.

Here is what I suggest — our town hold a community event:

  • To formally recognize and respectfully honor the 10,000-plus legacy of the Coast Salish who lived in and around Oak Harbor.
  • Commission Coast Salish spiritual leaders trained in conducting a traditional burning and peschelt — a ceremony to remember and honor the ancestors — to hold a traditional ceremony.
  • Those city staff involved in the mistakes, and townspeople who feel so called, make gifts to be given and prepare food to share in a community-wide feast in honor of ancestors.
  • Those city staff who proceeded on this project without first getting the archeological assessment make a public apology to the Swinomish and residents of Oak Harbor.
  • Commission members of the Lower Skagit tribe to produce public art representing the legacy of the First People for Oak Harbor. Currently there is no representation.


Melissa Duffy is an Oak Harbor resident.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.

Read the Oct 26
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates