History Stories

Back in 1996, two college students were wading in shallow waters near the bank of the Columbia River in southeastern Washington when they discovered the bones of the ancient individual who would become known as Kennewick Man. As soon as radiocarbon dating of one of the bones determined the skeleton’s advanced age—nearly 9,000 years old—controversy erupted over whether the prehistoric remains should be made available to scientists for study or be reburied immediately.

The land where Kenniwick Man was found is the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, after being ceded by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation under a treaty signed in 1855. But other Native American tribes would have wandered the landscape of the Columbia Plateau over the centuries—including the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Wanapum Band, the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce. All five tribes claimed a connection with the “Ancient One,” as they called the skeleton, and argued for his immediate reburial.

Since then, amid continued controversy, scientists have done extensive research on the remains of Kennewick Man, which the Army Corps held first at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and later at Seattle’s Burke Museum of History and Culture. A group of scientists based in Denmark made a major breakthrough in 2015, after they recovered DNA from a fragment of hand bone and used it to map Kennewick Man’s genetic code. When they compared that code with DNA from different populations around the world, the geneticists found it was closest to that of modern Native Americans. Their findings, published in the journal Nature in July 2015, contradicted previous assertions by scientists linking Kennewick Man to Polynesians or to the Ainu people of Japan.

At the initiative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, scientists at the University of Chicago were recently able to independently verify the results of that unprecedented DNA study. In announcing the confirmation of its results, Brig. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon, commander of the Corps’ Northwestern Division, told the Associated Press that he was “confident that our review and analysis of new skeletal, statistical, and genetic evidence have convincingly led to a Native American Determination.”

The Army Corps’ findings mean that Kennewick Man is indeed covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), as the tribes have long argued. The determination clears the way for the next step, when the various tribes that claim a cultural connection with Kennewick Man must verify that connection in order to determine which tribe will receive his remains. Ideally, the reburial would be as close to the original grave as possible, but as multiple tribes are claiming affiliation, it could take until early next year to decide on a final burial site.

Chuck Sams, a spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, explained that the tribes are cooperating in order to speed up the process and hasten Kennewick Man’s journey to his final resting place. As JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, told the Seattle Times: “Obviously we are hearing an acknowledgment from the Corps of what we have been saying for 20 years…Now we want to collectively do what is right, and bring our relative back for reburial.”

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