Human remains uncovered earlier this week at the Station Camp highway project will be reburied where they were found.
Members of the Chinook Indian Nation could begin as early as today the process of returning the bones, believed to be those of former inhabitants of a historic Chinook village, to the ground.
"We just want to honor and respect these people," Gary Johnson, chairman of the Chinook Tribal Council, said Thursday.
The remains were uncovered Tuesday morning by construction crews digging a utility trench for the project, which is re-aligning a section of U.S. Highway 101 west of the north end of the Astoria Bridge.
The discovery brought a halt to the project, which the Washington State Department of Transportation has officially put in a "state of stand-down." The construction equipment was due to be removed today and a team of archeologists to arrive at the site, according to Jim Sayce, project coordinator for the Washington State Historical Society.
Deputies from the Pacific County Sheriff's Office were called to the site immediately after the discovery, but after viewing the remains with a National Park Service archeologist they quickly determined that the bones were quite old and turned the case over to the highway department and the tribe.
A tent was erected over the remains Wednesday and 24-hour security, provided by the tribe and a private company, is on site.
Few details about the find have been released, but officials have said that an examination of the remains showed they clearly are American Indian. Johnson said Thursday that the remains appear to be of more than one person.
"These are clearly tribal ancestors, these are clearly family, and it is clearly a very difficult situation because of the way it was disturbed, and the work that has to be done," he said.
The tribe has consulted with people knowledgeable in the reburial of American Indian remains for help with the process at Station Camp, which is expected to last several days.
"The next thing we need to do is just return everything as best we can to the burial site," he said. "This is difficult work for the tribal members who will be involved. This isn't something we're used to doing on a regular basis."
The area was once the site of a large Chinook village the tribe knows as Middle Village. In the mid-1800s the town of McGowan grew up around a salmon cannery established nearby.
The tribe's focus at this time is the reburial, and only after that's complete will it consider the fate of the highway project, Johnson said.
"Once everything is returned as best we can do it, then that will be the time to address other questions that come up," he said. "We understand people will want to know the status of that site and the status of the project, but we're not even really dealing with that now."
Johnson praised the response of the various public agencies involved with the project.
"All the people, all the agencies involved have been very helpful and very concerned. Everybody understands what the situation is," he said. "It's got to be a difficult and traumatic situation for some of those folks as well."
The Station Camp site became of unit of the new Lewis and Clark National Historical Park last year, and the highway project was designed not only to eliminate a dangerous curve but also to create space for a new waterfront park.
The park was originally slated for completion in time for November's Lewis and Clark Bicentennial commemoration, but the project was delayed at the beginning of this year following the discovery of some charred planks believed to be from a Chinook house. After lengthy discussions between the tribe, WSDOT and the historical society, an agreement was reached that allowed the highway work to resume last week.
That agreement included the creation of an "inadvertent discovery plan" covering instances just like Tuesday's.
The Chinook had a large presence on the lower Columbia, and the Middle Village was believed to be the largest of several communities stretching from Gray's Bay to the east up to the Long Beach Peninsula. Lewis and Clark counted 36 plank houses at the village during their 10-day stay at Station Camp in November 1805, a number that researchers believe could point to a population at that time of more than 2,000.