Kennewick Man has been one of the most fascinating stories I’ve encountered in my 30-plus years as a newspaperman. And 20 years after the ancient bones were found, there is no less intrigue.
In late July 1996, I was sitting in the Tri-City Herald newsroom. We’d launched tricityherald.com two months earlier and were providing live online coverage of the annual hydroplane races.
After the final heat concluded, I was writing up results to post on the website (Dave Villwock won in the PICO American Dream). I heard the police scanner crackle a few feet away from me on the city desk: A skull had been found in the river.
From there, it only became more bizarre.
Jim Chatters was Benton County’s deputy coroner and was on call. He also happened to be a forensic anthropologist who was about to enter the eye of a political and cultural storm. When he first examined the skull, he thought it was old and was a white man, thus he figured it was the remains of an early settler from a century ago.
Soon after, Chatters scoured the area and found 350 pieces of bone, making this among the most complete ancient skeletons ever discovered. Radiocarbon dating came back and indicated these bones were, in fact, 9,000 years old.
Native tribes wanted the bones under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), while scientists wanted to study them. The scientists called him Kennewick Man. The tribes called him the Ancient One.
A lot was on the line. Tribes, rightly not trusting our government after more than a century of mistreatment, saw this as a move to weaken NAGPRA or treaty rights. Scientists were fascinated with the idea that a white person could have been in North America when he shouldn’t have been. The bones landed in a vault at the University of Washington, and the fight over what should be done landed in one federal court after another.
Chatters wrote a book called Ancient Encounters that called into question everything science thought it knew about how North America became populated.
By 2004, a federal court said there was no cultural link between native tribes and Kennewick Man. In 2005, Smithsonian scientist Doug Owsley and his team studied the bones in depth.
At times, the Kennewick Man controversy reached circus-like proportions, particularly when a group called the Asatru claimed Kennewick Man as its own. The Asatrus worship Viking gods (Odin, etc.) and showed up to blow a horn and drink mead.
It’s been 20 years, and the battle for these ancient bones has slowed only slightly. A recent DNA test would indicate that Kennewick Man may well be at least tangentially related to the Colvilles. Now, Gov. Inslee is calling on the Corps of Engineers to hand the skeleton over to tribal leaders for reburial.
On June 23, the Columbia Basin Badger Club will take an in-depth retrospective of the Kennewick Man/Ancient One controversy through the lens of time and perspective.
Our speakers will include:
▪ Kate Valdez, who is the tribal historic preservation officer for the Yakama Nation. She will share some of the tribal view of the bones and controversy surrounding them.
▪ Mark Taff, who teaches anthropology at Columbia Basin College and has been fascinated with the bones and their discovery for many years. He recently attended a conference that focused on Kennewick Man and will provide up-to-date information and insights.
I hope you will come to this dinner forum to learn more about one of the most interesting stories from our region.
Andy Perdue is the program committee chairman for the Columbia Basin Badger Club. He lives in Richland.