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Archaeologists' dig unearths Tolowa past

Shannon Tushingham, right, the lead archaeologist at the dig on a Tolowa site, has been working on the site for several weeks. She says the discovery of obsidian tools reveals a lot about the tribe's trading before European settlers arrived in the area. (Jennifer Henion).
Shannon Tushingham, right, the lead archaeologist at the dig on a Tolowa site, has been working on the site for several weeks. She says the discovery of obsidian tools reveals a lot about the tribe's trading before European settlers arrived in the area. (Jennifer Henion).

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

The young women lie on their bellies in the dirt, looking closely at their work.

With small paint brushes, they search the soil of Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park for clues to what daily life was like centuries ago for Tolowa Indians.

Their leader, archaeologist Shannon Tushingham, holds up a ziplock sandwich bag containing a fingernail sized translucent arrowhead.

For the last several weeks, Tushingham and her team of archaeologists have been working deep in the riverside forest park, unearthing the remains of a small Native American village – about five plank homes, fire pits and sweat lodge sites – believed to be the original Hiouchi or "Xaa-yuu-chit."

"We've learned a lot out here. It's a decent sized village," said Tushingham, who is working on a doctorate in archaeology at the University of California Davis.

"One of the most surprising things we've found is a lot of obsidian. The closest naturally occurring obsidian is 250 kilometers east of here on the other side of Shasta. That find speaks a lot about big time trade routes," Tushingham said.

She said the team has found more tools made of obsidian than native rock. Obsidian is considered smoother and sharper than surgical steel.

Other finds include mortar and pestle sets used to crush nuts and grains, stone sinkers for fishing nets and tools to cut fish and game.

Nets were made with iris fiber and sinkers were made by chipping two sides of a rock and wrapping the fiber around it to attach to the net.

Local Tolowa historian and linguist Loren Bommelyn said the dig area has long been known as a village site through oral histories, but it's exact perameters have not been marked since before the 1940s.

"It was a permanent village. Most of the large villages were on the coast, but I think Hiouchi was probably the end of the big towns as you go inland," said Bommelyn, a Smith River Rancheria Tribal Council Member.

Tushingham's work is being closely monitored by members of the Elk Valley and Smith River rancherias.

Tushingham said the finds have revealed significant information about how tribes traded goods before European settlers arrived in this area.

The sites are under the close watch of park employees, the archeologists and the local tribes.

The scientists said they've encountered a few curious hikers wondering if they were digging for gold or for dinosaurs.

After the scientists leave, Bommelyn said it is the responsibility of the Redwood National and State Parks to prevent any damage to the sites.

The general public is warned not to disturb any of the excavation sites, old or new. It is a prosecutable federal and state offense.

The discovery of the village remains may lead to changes in public use of the area, Bommelyn said.

Parks superintendent Rick Sermon did not return repeated phone inquires concerning the dig and plans to protect the site.

Oral history from Bommelyn's elder relatives tells of a Tolowa cemetery in Hiouchi that was surrounded by a picket fence until the 1940s, when the fence was destroyed for the purposes of the new land owners at the time.

He said the village site was also used by Tolowans who lived in the Point St. George and Pebble Beach coastal villages in the fall.

The coastal natives would travel the confluence of Mill Creek and the Smith River to collect salmon and acorns.

Tushingham said her crew has discovered shells and barnacles at the Hiouchi village, indicating the presence of the coastal villagers.

"It's a great place to live right here. There's a lot to eat–all the salmon, small game and fruit," she said.

The scientists guessed the village dated back to at least 1500 AD, when the technology of bows and arrows was first used.

Other Tolowa village sites in Del Norte County have been excavated by archeologists. In the 1960s the Point St. George site was studied as was a village near Lake Earl.

"This is the first excavated site inland. Pretty much all of the coastal sites have been looked at," Tushingham said.


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