S'Klallam Tribe reclaiming hallowed ground

CHIMACUM — When Gene Jones was 5 years old his grandfather told him he would someday fight for Tamanowas Rock.

They were walking down the wooded trail from the sacred S’Klallam site near Chimacum, on the Olympic Peninsula. Behind them the rock towered, even among the cedars.

Jones laughed off his grandfather’s premonition.

“Why would people fight over a rock?” he wondered.

Fifty years later his question was answered.

Jones, a spiritual leader for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, has been fighting for more than a decade to save Tamanowas Rock and the surrounding woodland from development. Finally, in December, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and Jefferson Land Trust secured the sale of Tamanowas Rock from landowner George Heidgerken.

Since then, Jones has been leading youth groups to the rock to clean litter and graffiti from its flanks.

“We want to clean it up and get the dignity and integrity back,” Jones said.

Few S’Klallam tribe members today have heard of Tamanowas Rock, but it was once known to Salish speaking tribes across Washington as a place of power. People from as far as the Colville Tribe in eastern Washington would seek out Jones’ grandfather, Jacob Jones, when they were in need of spiritual guidance. Jacob guided them across Hood Canal and through the forests to Tamanowas Rock, a monolith of volcanic stone rising more than 150 feet from the valley.

The travelers scrambled up the cratered side of the rock, carrying nothing but a box or basket of water. For three days they fasted on its narrow summit, looking out over the tops of trees to the Sound until their spiritual path became clear.

“They would find their answer, no matter what it was,” Jones said.

Jacob took Gene Jones to the rock when he was 5 and the youngster watched his 90-year-old grandfather clamber nimbly to its peak. Jacob died in 1963, at age 103, and Jones didn’t return to the Tamanowas Rock.

That last visit sprang to Jones’ mind when he received a phone call several years ago warning him the rock might be in jeopardy. The timberland surrounding Tamanowas Rock was up for sale and was a likely candidate for development. Local rock climbers and conservationists had been the first to raise the alarm, but soon the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and the State Parks and Recreation Commission were negotiating for the land. The Jamestown tribe bought several neighboring parcels from the Chinese company Citifor Inc. State Parks led negotiations with George Heidgerken of Tacoma, who owned the 62 acres surrounding Tamanowas rock, but couldn’t reach a deal, state parks planning program manager Bill Koss said. Heidgerken did not return a call for comment this week.

In 2009, George Heidgerken put the land up for sale asking $1.2 million and negotiations were renewed. He later dropped his price to $600,000, the amount determined by an assessor hired by the state, and set a December deadline for the groups to come up with money.

With little time to spare, the Jefferson Land Trust secured a loan from the Seattle-based Bullit Foundation to cover 80 percent of the price and the remainder was raised through private donations and contributions from the tribe. The land trust is holding the property while the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe seeks federal funds to repay the loans.

Jefferson Land Trust Executive Director Sarah Spaeth said Jones was a strong advocate and educator during the labored negotiations.

“Gene is a powerful leader,” she said.

Jones hopes the land will be shared by the three S’Klallam bands — the Jamestown, Port Gamble and Elwha. State Parks is also interested in jointly managing the property, Koss said.

Meanwhile, Jones is beginning to reconnect his tribe’s connection to the rock.

In the footsteps of his grandfather, he has taken seven people to fast on the rock in the traditional way. He has also led youth groups to the rock, not just to pick up litter but to learn about their heritage. Each time he visits, Jones sings songs and plays a drum to honor his ancestors.

“These kids we have now, they act like they are starving for their culture,” Jones said.

Jones sees S’Klallam people of all ages gathering around their traditional customs. Now they have reclaimed a spiritual gathering place as well.

“We have brand new hope,” Jones said.

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