A memory. I am remembering a day at the Makah Museum in Neah Bay, on the Makah Indian Reservation in Washington State. The reservation occupies the remote far northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula. The museum is small and intimate, but it holds one of the most important collections of Native American artifacts in the world.
The artifacts are from the Ozette Archaeological Site, an archaeological dig on the Pacific Coast 16 miles south of Neah Bay. They are the remains of a Makah fishing and whaling village called Ozette that was entombed in a mudslide 500 years ago. A storm uncovered the site 45 years ago.
Nowhere in the U.S. is there a more complete portrait of Native American life and culture before European invasion and settlement. The remains of Ozette reveal a complex, sophisticated maritime culture that was built around fishing and the hunting of whales, dolphins, seals and sea otters.
Archaeologists and Makah volunteers recovered more than 55,000 objects from the Ozette site. While only one percent of them can be shown at the Makah Museum at any one time, they open a stunning door into the Makah’s history and culture.
In the museum’s dim light (better for preserving the artifacts), my wife and I and our little daughter (she was 2 and ½ then) walked among the seagoing canoes that the Makah used for hunting whales and dolphins.
We marveled at the beautifully decorated split cedar planks that once made up the village’s longhouse walls.
We admired the village’s long harpoons, lancets and other whaling gear. In the carefully carved toys and woven dolls, we found tenderness and a mother’s and father’s love for their children.
In the carvings of whales, orcas and seals with which the people of Ozette decorated their cedar storage boxes, we found a lovely kind of whimsy and a sense of wonder at the sea and the creatures of the deep.
Even the village’s smallest, most delicate objects seem to have survived, preserved from dissolving into the earth by a mud blanket.
I thought of the Algonquin tribes that resided back home on the North Carolina coast half a millennium ago. I wondered what we would know about them if, by some miracle, a storm had uncovered an Ozette on our shores.
A village before winds, storms, currents and tides took their toll.
A village before the English, the Spanish, the Portuguese and all the rest.
A village before small pox, influenza and all the other infectious diseases that arrived from the Old World.
At the Makah Museum, incredible rarities abound. We saw clothing, blankets and other textiles, all of them made of sealskins, pine bark or animal furs.
We also admired the kitchen tools, fishing nets, boat sails and spruce root baskets, among many other practical objects. Despite their fragileness and time’s unforgiving nature, they have been dated to the 1400s and early 1500s.
The remains of Ozette are absolutely beautiful: you feel the villagers’ reverence for wood and bone, untold depths of spirit and a closeness to the sea beyond anything I have ever seen before.
Above all, you see the Ozette villagers. In your mind’s eye, you really see them: there at the shore, below the longhouses, the canoes pulled above the high tide line, women around a driftwood fire, babies at the knee, whalers watching the sea and sharpening their lancets and harpoons.
You see the hairpins that held the grandmothers’ braids, the pile of spruce root threads that rested at their feet, a cedar box engraved with an orca that held sewing needles, a basket full of seabird eggs.