Northwest tribes inch closer to reburial of Kennewick Man remains

This reconstruction of the skull of Kennewick Man was made by a scientist who doesn't believe the remains are Native American. Genetic evidence proves he was wrong. Photo from Wikipedia

After two decades of fighting, five Pacific Northwest tribes are finally getting closer to their goal of reclaiming one of their oldest ancestors.

The Colville Tribes, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Umatilla Tribes, the Yakama Nation and the Wanapum Tribe plan to submit a joint claim for the remains of the Kennewick Man. They are taking action after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division concluded that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act applies to the 8,500-year-old remains because he is Native American.

“My decision regarding this determination has been an important one to make and is based on the best available evidence,” Brig. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon, Commanding General of the Northwestern Division, said in a press release. “I am confident that our review and analysis of new skeletal, statistical, and genetic evidence have convincingly led to a Native American Determination."

The Army Corps previously planned to repatriate the remains -- known as the Ancient One to the tribes -- until a group of scientists filed a lawsuit. In 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Kennewick Man was too old to be covered by the 1990 law.


The remains of the Kennewick Man were found at this site along the Columbia River in Washington. The land used to belong the Umatilla Tribes until it was ceded by treaty. Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The remains were then subjected to scientific studies and new evidence from those efforts prompted the Army Corps to re-examine the issue. DNA results confirmed that the Ancient One's descendants are members of the tribes who have claimed him all along.

“After 20 years, it acknowledges what we already knew and have been saying since the beginning,” Chuck Sams, a spokesperson for the Umatilla Tribes, told the Associated Press.

The Ancient One in fact was found in 1996 at a site along the Columbia River in Washington that used to be part of the Umatilla Reservation. Had the land not been ceded by treaty, the tribes likely would not have faced opposition to their claim to their ancestor because NAGPRA would not have come into play.

The new Army Corps determination came a day after the introduction of the S.2848, the Water Resources Development Act, in the Senate. The bill includes a provision that requires the agency to transfer the Ancient Once to the Washington Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, which would then allow the tribes to lay his body back to rest.

"This is a big step forward and great news for Columbia Basin tribes who have been fighting to bring the Ancient One home to his rightful place,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) said in a press release. “This is about doing right by the descendants of the Ancient One, and I will keep fighting to move this bill forward and bring these remains home.”

Murray introduced S.1979, the Bring the Ancient One Home Act, last August but it never got a hearing. Its inclusion in the Water Resources Development Act gives it a greater chance of passage in the 114th Congress. S.2848 is set to clear the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a business meeting on Thursday morning.

Section 1030 of S.2848 reads:
SEC. 1030. KENNEWICK MAN. 

(a) Definitions.—In this section:

(1) CLAIMANT TRIBES.—The term “claimant tribes” means the Indian tribes and band referred to in the letter from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera, relating to the human remains and dated September 21, 2000.

(2) DEPARTMENT.—The term “Department” means the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.

(3) HUMAN REMAINS.—The term “human remains” means the human remains—
(A) that are known as Kennewick Man or the Ancient One, which includes the projectile point lodged in the right ilium bone, as well as any residue from previous sampling and studies; and
(B) that are part of archaeological collection number 45BN495.
(b) Transfer.—Notwithstanding any other provision of Federal law or law of the State of Washington, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (25 U.S.C. 3001 et seq.), not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of the Army, acting through the Chief of Engineers, shall transfer the human remains to the Department, on the condition that the Department, acting through the State Historic Preservation Officer, disposes of the remains and repatriates the remains to claimant tribes.

(c) Cost.—The Corps of Engineers shall be responsible for any costs associated with the transfer.
(d) Limitations.—
(1) IN GENERAL.—The transfer shall be limited solely to the human remains portion of the archaeological collection.

(2) CORPS OF ENGINEERS.—The Corps of Engineers shall have no further responsibility for the human remains transferred pursuant to subsection (b) after the date of the transfer.

Get the Story:
It’s official: Kennewick Man is Native American (The Seattle Times 4/28)
Army Corps opens door to return Kennewick Man bones to tribes (The Tri-City Herald 4/28)
9,000-year-old Kennewick Man set to receive Native American burial after decades in limbo (The Washington Post 4/28)
Kennewick Man Was Native American After All (Courthouse News Service 4/28)
Corps determines Kennewick Man is Native American (AP 4/27)
Senate hearing could bring Kennewick Man closer to tribal burial (The Tri-City Herald 4/27)
Sen. Murray's bill to bring Kennewick Man home take next step (KAPP 4/26)

Committee Notice:
Business Meeting (April 28, 2016)

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Bonnichsen v US (February 4, 2004)

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