Kalispel Tribe, WSU Collaborate on Archeological Excavation

Kalispel Tribal land

NEWPORT, WA – Ancient tribal earth ovens built long before the Egyptian pyramids are being excavated as part of the first archeological project ever made public by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

On June 5, the news media is invited to visit the excavation, which is being conducted in collaboration with Washington State University (WSU) archeologists. Attendees will see uncovered artifacts at the site, near Newport, WA, and learn more about the history of the Kalispel Tribe’s indigenous food systems. Archeologists, tribal representatives and WSU students participating in the dig will be available for interviews.

The earth ovens were discovered after the Kalispel Tribe purchased land near Newport to accommodate the need for additional tribal housing near the reservation. The artifacts are being carefully removed from the ground to make way for this essential tribal housing. At the same time, the excavation provides an opportunity for the tribe to discover more of its history and preserve any artifacts located in what researchers believe was an ancient tribal hunting camp on the banks of the Pend Oreille River. Preliminary analyses of the site indicate that the project could reveal new insights into the foods the Kalispel people have been preparing and eating in the Inland Northwest for the last 5,000 years. 

“As a tribe, we’ve never shared this kind of historical excavation experience with the public,” said Kalispel tribal elder Shirley Blackbear. “But I think it is important for non-Natives to learn and understand more about our tribe. Our history and traditions are very rich and important to us. Cooking techniques have been passed down from generation to generation.” 

Traditionally, tribes have not always been consulted when it comes to archeological digs, especially when the property is owned by private non-tribal landowners. However, since the early 1990’s, the Kalispel Tribe has grown its own capacity to answer questions about its past as it sees fit, employing archaeologists of its own to preserve tribal history.

Kevin Lyons, Kalispel tribal archaeologist, said tribal leadership decided to partner with WSU experts on the project given its scale and scientific complexity. 

“This is one of those rare occasions where the tribe, with its own expertise, could do this on its own, but we would wind up doing it to the exclusion of everything else, and we already have other standing obligations,” said Lyons. “We are partnering with WSU archeologists on this project because we have a long tradition of working with them and know that they will do justice to the tribe’s history and its tangible footprint.”

As part of the current excavation, Shannon Tushingham, a WSU professor of archeology who has worked with the tribe for many years, is leading an archeological field school where fourth-year students will get first-hand experience practicing techniques essential to careers in professional archeology. 

“It is really about teaching students the archeological skills they will need to get jobs in the growing field of cultural resource management,” said Tushingham. “We are training the next generation of professional archeologists how to work with tribal communities and interact with them in a meaningful and professional way. We are honored to be hosted by the Kalispel Tribe.”