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Sunken Village unearths Native American culture on Sauvie Island
- Gini Bramlett
- South County Spotlight - Features
Archeologists are saving what's left of the artifacts and documenting the lifestyles of Native Americans on a Sauvie Island beach
The lower Columbia River section of the Northwest coastal area is thought to have had one of the highest population densities in North America during aboriginal times, yet our knowledge of the Chinook Indians, who lived there, is minimal.
For the past two Septembers, students from South Puget Sound Community College and Archeological Investigations Northwest Inc. have been mapping and documenting a 350-yard length of beach on Sauvie Island referred to as 'The Sunken Village.' The site has netted a treasure trove of artifacts and information about the lifestyles of the Native American populations living and congregating there. Archeological and historical evidence suggests that the island has been an attractive place to live for the past 3,000 years.
Lewis and Clark's population estimates for the lower Columbia indicated there were more than 17,000 individuals, with 6,000 on Sauvie Island alone. But, their populations in the Portland basin, including Sauvie Island, were virtually gone by 1836, dying from introduced diseases.
The project, which has been designated as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, is sponsored by a small team of Japanese archeologists, including Dr. Akira Matsui, an environmental archeologist from Kyoto University. The Japanese doctors are interested in the site because similar things have been found at various sites in Japan. 'People lived by hunting and gathering and using natural resources very similar to each other,' said Dr. Matsui. 'Acorns and salmon were the most important resources on both sides of the ocean, so it's very important to compare the two.'
Evidence shows as many as 60 acorn pits within the site, indicating heavy utilization of this resource. The area also shows underground springs emptying into the channel. Native Americans dug deep pits, lined them with hemlock boughs and filled them with acorns. The pumping of the springs leached away the tannins in the acorns over winter, making them edible by spring. 'One pit can contain thousands of acorns,' said Dr. Dale Croes, professor of anthropology at South Puget Sound Community College and adjunct faculty member at Washington State University. 'This site has the largest number of acorn pits in North America. It's a very significant natural landmark, the most famous in the United States.
The site is believed to be more of a seasonal meeting place for various tribes than an actual year-around village. A highly developed system of trade was conducted in the area and the main mode of transportation was by canoe or overland by foot. Both permanent and winter dwellings were made out of cedar planks while simple cattail mat structures were built for use during warmer seasons. Artifacts found in the area produced from wood and plant fibers support this information.
Recently, an intact cedar checker-weave basket was removed from the area. 'It came out in one piece,' said Cindy Ede, a retired Scappoose art teacher and Indian historian who was invited to assist at the site. 'It makes you realize they were real people,' Ede said. 'Indians view items such as the recently unearthed basket as a thing that belonged to someone deceased.' According to Ede, after items are unearthed, a prayer accompanied by drumming is said to help the owner be at peace with what the archeologists are doing.
Confederated Tribe members, Eirik Thorsgard and Robert Kentta are experts in their tribal cultures and were present to oversee the project and serve as consultants during the planning, testing and follow-up research. A cooperative effort between the Confederated Tribes and archeologists has been found to contribute highly to projects like this.
The addition of the dike in the late 1930s and the bridge in 1950 brought significant changes to the island and with it looting of the archeological treasures buried there. With patience, arrowheads can still be found in the gravel although large artifacts have all been carried away. The beach site has yielded pieces of unique basketry, stone blades, cedar-bark matting, root cordage and various 'garbage' used in tool-making. Eventually the artifacts will be displayed at museums at Warm Springs and/or at other confederated tribal museums, but for now they are at the University of Oregon.
The historic site is off-limits and patrolled by the county sheriff's office and the water district to stave off further looting. Island residents are asked to call the sheriff's office if they see evidence of trespassing on the site.