Ozette cover

Ruth Kirk

University of Washington Press: 2015

Although the professional literature is rich and extensive, not enough had been written for the public on the extraordinary archaeological exploration at Ozette, the ancient whaling village on the Olympic coast between Neah Bay and La Push. There is Hunters of the Whale, by Northwest chronicler Ruth Kirk, written for young readers in 1974 when the expedition was barely half finished. Archaeology in Washington, coauthored by Kirk and WSU archaeologist Richard Daugherty, included a section on Ozette.

But this new work by Kirk is what everyone with any interest in Ozette has long waited for.

Ozette had been occupied by the Makah, probably continuously for at least two thousand years, until the 1920s. Makah oral history recalls centuries of a rich whale-hunting culture centered at the village. They had no choice but to abandon their ancient home when the federal government insisted that children at the site must enroll in school.

Following his identification of the site as the most significant in a coastal survey of archaeological sites in the late 1940s, Daugherty finally gathered funding to begin the excavation of Ozette in 1966.

“Archaeology is not a search for things…,” Kirk writes. “The actual goal is to study relationships between objects and the people who made and used them.”

To realize this goal, Daugherty drew on colleagues across a range of disciplines.

Geologist Roald Fryxell directed the project and coordinated the WSU scientists. Zoologist Carl Gustafson identified mammal bones from the excavations. Ecologist Rex Daubenmire examined how buried organic material might affect soil acidity. Plant pathologist Shirl Graham studied soil samples to understand favorable preservation conditions. Palynologist Cal Heusser studied fossil plant pollen at the site and what climate conditions it reflected.

Initial excavation over the course of two field seasons exposed a rich history: thousands of animal bones, cedar-bark mats, baskets, stone and bone tools. Fryxell also found evidence that confirmed tribal memory of mudslides that had destroyed several houses.

In spite of Ozette’s dramatic promise, however, work was interrupted by the urgent need to salvage important interior archaeological sites about to be inundated by rising waters behind the Snake River dams.

But in 1970, a winter storm uncovered a house at Ozette, and waves and pilferers were making off with artifacts. Tribal chair Ed Claplanhoo ’56 asked Daugherty to assess the situation.

Daugherty immediately drove ten hours to the coast to begin a remarkable 11-year recovery of Makah history and culture, one in which the Makahs themselves participated and would establish that the Makahs were indeed longtime whalers, confirming the memories and stories of their elders

Ozette would result in nine doctoral dissertations and ten master’s theses, on subjects such as basketry, stone tools, woodworking technology, ethnobotany, and the use of fish at the site.

Ozette is a beautiful and profound book, befitting the beauty and profundity of Makah culture. And Ruth Kirk is uniquely qualified as its author. In addition to her being widely respected as a scholarly and captivating storyteller of Pacific Northwest natural history and archaeology, as Makah cultural leader Meredith Parker writes in her foreword, “There is no one better suited or trusted to tell this story than our friend Ruth Kirk. She was at Ozette, she was at Neah Bay, she was at our weddings, baby showers, and funerals.”

Also, after a decades-long professional relationship, Kirk and Daugherty married in a longhouse at Neah Bay, and spent his last seven years together.