Congress seems to be synonymous with bitter partisan gridlock these days, and it’s not too often you hear about members working across the aisle to get things done. But recently, we were both honored to celebrate something Congress did right: pass legislation to return the Ancient One, also known as the Kennewick Man, to his rightful place.
The saga of the Ancient One began in 1996, when passersby found the Ancient One’s skeletal remains on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick. What began as a curious discovery turned into something much more significant when studies revealed the bones were nearly 9,000 years old, making the remains one of the most complete ancient skeletons ever found in North America. The discovery made international headlines.
But while the discovery may have been well-documented, the Ancient One’s origins were a complete mystery. Scientists studied the remains and wanted to keep doing so for an indeterminate amount of time. Some even waged legal battles to ensure the remains would always be available. But from the outset, a number of Columbia Basin tribes immediately knew they had a strong connection to the remains and they were deeply troubled at the prospect of never being able to put their ancestor to rest in accordance to their cultural customs.
It was a dispute that last nearly two decades and seemed without resolution. Then, in a somewhat ironic twist, it was science that finally helped settle the debate. Advances in DNA testing proved what the tribes had known to be true — the Ancient One was one of them.
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With the lineage settled, the two of us, along with Congressman Denny Heck, got to work in Congress to bring the case to a close. More than one year after first proposing legislation in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats agreed: returning the remains to the Columbia Basin tribes was the right thing to do. But it wasn’t just Congress that made this possible. Thanks to our partners at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Governor Jay Inslee, and the Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, we were able to help write the final chapter of the Ancient One. This was a team effort that transcended tribal or political affiliation, or government agency.
But of course, while Congress may have gotten this over the finish line in legislation, the real credit goes to the tribal members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the Wanapum Band of Priest Rapids. They impressed upon us, and many others, how meaningful it was to their culture and their identity to finally lay the Ancient One to rest. They did just that in a private ceremony in February.
There’s no denying the deep political divisions that remain in our country and the many policy battles that lay ahead. But resolving the dispute over the Ancient One was essential to righting a wrong for the Columbia Basin tribes, and to remembering that Congress is still capable of working together to do what’s right.