Kennewick Man brought home to his final resting place

Nearly 30 tribal members and leaders were gathered in the basement-level hallway outside the main room. It was early Friday morning. The light was beginning to filter in through the windows next to the freight entrance that had been papered over to ensure privacy. They knew they would be there several hours, so chairs had been set up. Some people sipped coffee patiently, some chatted casually in hushed tones, others stood or leaned quietly near the doorways.

Tribal leaders gathered at the University of Washington Burke Museum on Feb. 17, 2017 (Photo courtesy of DAHP)

Inside the room were seven tribal members. They sat in chairs pushed against the walls, silently observing five people working at a table arranged in the center of the room under the glare of fluorescent lights.

After more than two decades of waiting, it was now just a matter of hours.

Laura Phillips, curator of the Ancient One at the Burke Museum, was at the table, reading off numbers from the 127-page list in her hands. Other staff members at the table were scanning the dozens of boxes arranged nearby, looking for those that matched the numbers she recited.

Each box was carefully opened on the table. Together they examined the contents, carefully wrapped and cradled. Phillips would look again at the list in her hands, making check marks to verify every content of the box before it was closed again and set aside.

The seven tribal observers watched and waited silently.

The contents of those boxes were soon going to be theirs.

Those boxes contained the remains of their ancestor.

Kennewick Man was almost home.

Kennewick Man: Native American or “Caucasoid”?

The story of Kennewick Man — also known as “the Ancient One” — has been the subject of dozens of news and magazine articles. He was discovered July 28, 1996, when two men stumbled across a human skull near the shore of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington.

The Columbia River, near Kennewick, Wash., where the Ancient One was found in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Flickr — kenlund)

Investigators soon discovered a nearly complete skeleton. Laboratory tests indicated the remains were nearly 9,000 years old — among the oldest and most complete remains ever discovered in North America.

An immediate dispute erupted about what to do with the Ancient One’s remains.

Scientists wanting to study the remains eagerly asserted the man was non-Native American, or “Caucasoid,” and should be made available for research. Pacific Northwest tribes said the remains were Native American and should be returned so they could properly bury their ancestor.

The absence of DNA testing at the time made it hard to prove either claim.

In 1990, Congress had passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to ensure tribes’ legal rights to repatriate remains proven to be Native American. Citing lack of such proof, a group of eight scientists moved quickly to sue the federal government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent repatriation. Tribes in Washington and Oregon joined the Corps as defendants. It was the first time NAGPRA was tested in the courts.

The courts sided with the scientists, first in 2002 in U.S. District Court and then again in 2004 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Corps was required to allow the scientists access to the Ancient One’s remains, which were being safeguarded at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum.

Over the next two years and against the wishes of the tribes, two dozen scientists came to the Burke and analyzed more than 300 pieces of bone.

The tribes weren’t ready to give up, but it was clear the courts weren’t going to help and science wasn’t on their side. Yet.

Unsettled science

In 2014, Dr. Douglas Owsley, one of eight plaintiff scientists who had sued to prevent repatriation, reported that his morphology-based findings suggested Kennewick Man was related to “an ancient population of seafarers who were America’s original settlers. They did not look like Native Americans.” Owsley and his team theorized Kennewick Man was a descendant of coastal Asian explorers.

But a noted geneticist from the University of Copenhagen, Dr. Eske Willersley, had reached out to the five involved tribes hoping to work with them to conduct DNA testing that could prove the Ancient One’s relations to modern-day Native Americans.

The Colville Confederated Tribes agreed. And in 2015, Willersley and his team reported that new DNA findings confirmed Kennewick Man was most likely related to Native Americans:

“We find that Kennewick Man is closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide. Among the Native American groups for whom genome-wide data are available for comparison, several seem to be descended from a population closely related to that of Kennewick Man, including the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (Colville), one of the five tribes claiming Kennewick Man.”

Dr. Allyson Brooks, Washington’s historic preservation officer and head of the state’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, recalls reading about Willerslev’s findings and immediately reaching out to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office to see if the state could help build the case for repatriation. She called one of the governor’s policy advisers, Jim Baumgart, and asked how the state could help the tribes.

“Jim’s instant reaction was, ‘Let’s go to Oregon,’” Brooks said. “We set up a meeting at the Portland Corps office with its leadership to ask them to renew their push for repatriation under NAGPRA.”

Brooks said the Corps was reluctant to go back to court and uncertain how to handle repatriation to multiple tribes. Brooks, who has experience managing dozens of repatriation cases on behalf of Washington, knew the state could easily manage that process. She and Baumgart decided on a new course of action.

“It was clear it would be a tough go if we went to court, so we decided to go to Congress,” Brooks said. “Our office has extensive experience working with tribes to transfer remains. If we could pass a bill to have Kennewick Man transferred to the state, we would be able to return him to the tribes.”

Brooks and Baumgart began talking to elected officials from Washington and Oregon. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Reps. Denny Heck and Dan Newhouse pursued legislation to speed up the repatriation process.

Inslee also wanted to keep up pressure on the Corps and urged it to return Kennewick Man to tribes. In a letter to Brig. Gen. John S. Kem, Inslee wrote, “Now that DNA analysis has demonstrated a genetic link to modern Native Americans, including those in the State of Washington, I am requesting that the Ancient One be repatriated to the appropriate Tribes as expeditiously as possible.”

The decision to enlist the help of Congress paid off. Murray, Heck and Newhouse were successful and on Dec. 16, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the bill directing the Corps to transfer Kennewick Man to DAHP, which, in turn, would return the remains to the tribes.

Almost home

On Friday, Feb. 17, 2017, 20 years after he was found, the remains of the Ancient One were brought into a small room in the basement of the Burke. Once the Corps and DAHP completed the inventory, the state officially came into possession of the remains.

The tribal chairs of the Umatilla, Colville, Yakama, Nez Perce and Wanapum tribes were brought into the room. Brooks and Wanapum Chairman Rex Buck each made brief remarks before a short signing ceremony.

“The state had possession of the Ancient One for all of 10 minutes before proudly signing him over to the claimant tribes,” Brooks said. “It was an emotional moment for all involved.”

Tribal elders immediately got to work, meticulously bundling the hundreds of bones in traditionally tanned buckskins. The Ancient One was ready to return home.

Two eagles circled overhead as the tribal members and state and federal officials left the museum.

A proper burial

The burial was personal and private. According to Colville Chairman Michael Marchand, the Ancient One was laid to rest in a secret location early Saturday morning.

“Yesterday (the Ancient One) was transferred to the tribes in Seattle,” Marchand told the Tribal Tribune. “Today he was buried. There were some amazing songs and ceremonies. This took most of the day Friday.”

Marchand said the five tribes had worked together to agree on details of the ceremony that featured Washat customs and songs.

“The return of our ancestor to Mother Earth is a blessing for all Yakama people. The Ancient One may now finally find peace, and we his relatives will equally feel content knowing that this work has been completed on his behalf,” said Yakama Chairman JoDe Goudy. “For more than two decades we have fought on behalf of our ancestors. The unity of the native people during our collective efforts to bring the Ancient One home is a glimpse of how life once was, when we were all one people.

“The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are proud to have worked with Washington state to repatriate the Ancient One to the claimant Tribes,” said Chairman Gary Burke. “We jointly believe in respecting the ancestors of our past and are proud of our work to finally lay the Ancient One to rest.”

“The Colville Tribes, along with the other Claimant Tribes, are happy that this day has finally arrived,” said Colville Business Council Chairman Dr. Michael Marchand. “We have overcome challenges to what we knew from the beginning. The Ancient One is our ancestor, and we are blessed with his presence once again, in our Homelands.”

“We must fix the governing laws that allow such disrespect to continue”

Twenty years of legal, scientific and political disputes were endured before Kennewick Man was allowed home. During that time, researchers damaged and compromised his remains in the name of science.

Goudy is both hopeful and resolute that tribes are ensured their rights to return relatives and artifacts to their appropriate resting places.

“We humble ourselves before our Creator knowing that without the practice of our way of life, we cease to be Yakamas. When this work is completed we will respectfully step forth to continue the work that lies before all of us,” Goudy said.
“Throughout the lands there are countless other relatives, artifacts and possessions that lie within various collections, among various entities, governed by various laws. Our work will continue on their behalf because they must be returned to their appropriate resting place. We must fix the governing laws that allow such disrespect to continue to be dictated to our collective peoples.
“We thank all those who stood with us and helped us bring the Ancient One home, including President Barack Obama and Gov. Jay Inslee. We would also like to thank Sen. Patty Murray, along with Congressmen Heck, Kilmer, Newhouse and Walden for their efforts in Congress.
“And we are especially grateful for Dr. Allyson Brooks, the Washington state historic preservation officer, whose advocacy for justice in this case was critical to our victory we celebrate today.
“Finally, we are appreciative to the Burke Museum and staff, who have respectfully cared for our relative for the past two decades, while he awaited his return home. We hope our continued work will see equal if not perhaps even greater support from all who are in positions of authority to do so.”

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