Uncovering an American Place

"My study is a community-based place study, but also a kind of personal exploration of my past in the place I'd like to call home again." – Lee Hughes

In the summer of 2003, workers on a state project to overhaul the aging Hood Canal Bridge unearthed a 2,700-year-old Klallam village buried beneath layers of industrial rubble on the Port Angeles waterfront. By the time the transportation project was halted 16 months later, more than 300 complete skeletons and 10,000 artifacts had been found, along with the ruins of six longhouses, making it one of the most significant archeological finds in a generation.

"We started out fixing one kind of bridge, but we ended up finding a bridge into the past." —Doug MacDonald, Washington State Secretary of Transportation, 2004

The discovery of the village of Tse-whit-zen (pronounced ch-WHEETsen) rocked the state of Washington, the city of Port Angeles and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose ancestors were interred in the site. Yet, it also reconnected the community with its forgotten past and sparked a cultural reawakening for the tribe.

Lee Hughes holds historical image

Lee Hughes is a third-generation native of Port Angeles, a town of 19,000 situated on the north shore of the Olympic Peninsula, between Tse-whit-zen in the west and another major Klallam village in the east. It faces the Strait of Juan de Fuca; at its back is the million-acre Olympic National Park. Hughes’s grandparents immigrated there from Europe. “They followed the railroad West,” he says.

As a junior in Evergreen’s American Places program, Hughes put his birthplace—and the region itself—under an ethnographic microscope to examine how its inhabitants view their past, present and future; the forces that have shaped them; and the prospects ahead. “My study is a community-based place study, but also a kind of personal exploration of my past in the place I’d like to call home again.”

According to the American Places syllabus, the three-quarter program considered “how American places are conceived, lived in, felt about, fought over, and transformed at intersections of geography and history, culture and politics.” Co-taught by Kristina Ackley, Sam Schrager and Matt Smith, it gave students the opportunity to develop their skills as writers and researchers, as well as the option to deeply study either local places or those more distant. Each student conducted ethnographic fieldwork to document and understand social life in a chosen community. Some did this in conjunction with internships.

One student, did a case management internship with the Lewis County Long-Term Recovery Organization to help victims of the 2007 flooding and researched the role of spirituality and community in disaster recovery. Others studied communities further away like San Francisco and Mexico, Amsterdam and South Africa.

In the fall quarter, the class spent time reading a wide range of assigned texts, as well as learning how to conduct oral-history interviews, writing essays and a life-history paper, and going on a one-week field trip to observe different communities in the Yakima Valley as a trial run for the more extensive individual studies to come later in the program.

A big component of the program was the oral-history interview, conducted with people whose lives and stories students wished to record. The recordings and transcripts of their interviews are to be preserved in The Evergreen State College Library archives as part of a growing collection of historical and cultural records about local life. Students also wrote “life portraits” based on their interviews. In the end, their work had the potential to be of practical and documentary value to a wider community.

Lee Hughes at Tongue Point

Lee Hughes views his research as a personal as well as an academic journey. He brought his son, Kevin, along to Tongue Point near Port Angeles on one of his research trips.

In Hughes’s analysis of Port Angeles, he found a town struggling to orient itself. For much of the 20th century, its primary industry was logging. By the 1980s, when most of the biggest trees had been cut down and stricter environmental regulations curbed additional harvesting to protect endangered spotted owls, its economic foundation crumbled. Despite its abundant natural beauty and high quality of life, the town “still has a rear view approach to its economy,” says Hughes. “Port Angeles is a complicated place. It’s a town in transition, going from an extractive-based economy to a more environmentally-based economy.”

Hughes is a nontraditional student who once worked as an engineering technician for the Washington State Department of Transportation. A father of two—and grandfather of two—he lives in Olympia with his wife, who teaches algebra in Lacey’s Komachin Middle School. To conduct his independent fieldwork, he drove 2½ hours to reach Port Angeles. On one particular trip, he visited the graves of his paternal grandparents, who are buried at the Ocean View Cemetery on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. While there, he located the grave of the writer and poet Raymond Carver, who died in Port Angeles in 1988. Hughes had been reading Carver’s short story collection, Where I’m Calling From, for his project. He read other books, too, like William Dietrich’s Final Forest, on the controversy of logging the Olympic Peninsula’s old-growth forests, and historic documents. For his oral-history interviews, he spoke with nine different townspeople, “a wide strata of the population,” to get a fuller picture of the region, including a local realtor, a woman in her 80s who grew up on the Elwha River “before the national park was a national park,” a lumber mill manager, and someone from the Lower Elwha Clallam Tribe.

“I’ve really come to appreciate a lot of different viewpoints,” he says. “What’s been most illuminating for me is the Native American element. I was never aware of the history of what the people went through and what they are still going through.”

Looking at the region from the perspective of a researcher, Hughes has come to understand the place where he grew up in a different light. His investigation of the discovery and handling of the ancient burial ground and native village in Port Angeles helped him better understand its history, heritage, and conflicts over land use. He got an education in the politics of the place and he did some comparative research, pitting Port Angeles against its smaller neighbor to the east, Port Townsend.

In March, he attended a meeting in the City Council Chambers about the findings of a sustainability assessment by the American Institute of Architects to address how Port Angeles can best move forward. He wrote about the meeting in depth on the blog he created in the spring quarter, which is called “Olympic Treasure: A search for meaning on the Olympic Peninsula.” Among his observations: For Port Angeles to become “a place that people want to come to visit and even stay in, rather than pass through as they mainly do now, will require that the city by reconsidered, reconditioned, and revitalized. In a word: rebuilt.”

Hughes almost abandoned the program last fall when the financial meltdown hit. “I really started getting interested in economics,” he says. “I was going to jump ship, but Sam Schrager, my evaluation faculty, talked me into staying and I’m so glad I did. It was definitely worth it.


“My study has given me a greater appreciation for the Olympic Peninsula as a place, as well as growing concern over sprawl, the loss of the natural landscapes that exist there, and the very nature and character of the community there today,” Hughes writes. “It appears there is a strong need for reconciliation.”

And his plans regarding the place he calls a “cultural and ecological jewel”? “I’d like to move back sooner than later and affect some change there,” he says.

Photos: Katherine B. Turner, photography intern