‘Kennewick Man’ reburied after 20 years

A plastic casting of the skull was made from the bones known as Kennewick Man in Richland, Wash. The ancient skeleton was buried in a Washat ceremony Saturday in southeastern Washington.

The Ancient One has again been laid to rest.

More than 200 members from five Columbia Plateau tribes gathered on a chilly Saturday morning to rebury the 9,000-year-old bones of their ancestor, commonly known as the Kennewick Man, at an undisclosed location in southeast Washington.

The ceremony caps more than 20 years of legal challenges and scientific studies that ensued after two college students first discovered the Kennewick Man’s remains along the Columbia River. Scientists in 2015 finally announced that DNA from the skeleton was most closely related to that of modern day American Indians.

On Friday, the remains were repatriated to five area tribes including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and Wanapum Band of Indians.

“We always knew the Ancient One to be Indian,” said Aaron Ashley, member of the CTUIR Board of Trustees and chairman of the Cultural Resources Committee. “We have oral stories that tell of our history on this land and we knew, at the moment of his discovery, that he was our relation.”

Convincing the U.S. government, however, would take decades. Though tribal leaders immediately put in claims for the remains, another group of scientists who wanted to study the bones filed a lawsuit insisting the Kennewick Man was not related to the tribes, based on the shape of the skull.

The scientists eventually won in court, and the Army Corps of Engineers retained custody of the remains. It wasn’t until 2015 when a DNA analysis at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark showed the Kennewick Man was, in fact Native American.

Congress passed legislation in 2016 to return the Kennewick Man to the tribes. Repatriation was done Friday, Feb. 17 at the Burke Museum in Seattle, where the remains were being held. It took six hours to account for every piece of bone and bone fragment.

“The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation is proud to have worked with all parties to repatriate the Ancient One to the Tribes,” said Gary Burke, CTUIR board chairman. “We jointly believe in respecting our ancestors of our past and have fulfilled our responsibility to finally lay the Ancient One to rest.”

Chuck Sams, CTUIR spokesman, was present for both the repatriation and burial of Kennewick Man. He described it as a cathartic moment for the tribes, with emotions ranging from joy and relief to sadness that some tribal elders did not live to see the Ancient One’s reburial.

“It’s a little shocking it took over 20 years to get to where we are today,” Sams said.

The remains were buried in the high desert, not far from the Columbia River. Sams said the tribes led a Washat ceremony, singing songs that are thousands of years old and may very well have been from the Kennewick Man’s time.

Afterward, members of the five tribes attended a traditional dinner of salmon, buffalo, elk, roots and berries at the Wanapum Longhouse in Priest Rapids, Washington.

“This is a big day, and our people have come to witness and honor our ancestor,” said Armand Minthorn, CTUIR board member and Longhouse leader. “We continue to practice our beliefs and laws as our Creator has given us since time immemorial.”

With more than 100,000 sets of American Indian remains still in public and private collections across the country, Sams said there is the need to strengthen the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Specifically, he said the law should give proper weight to the tribes’ oral traditions of their history.

“We know who we are, and where we come from,” Sams said.

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.

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