Kennewick Man skeleton closer to tribal return

A plastic casting was made of the 8,400-year-old skull from the bones of Kennewick Man discovered along the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick.
A plastic casting was made of the 8,400-year-old skull from the bones of Kennewick Man discovered along the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick. Associated Press file

Legislation that would return the 8,400-year-old bones of Kennewick Man to Columbia Basin tribes could become law in the coming weeks.

The legislation proposed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in August 2015 made it over an important hurdle on Monday.

The legislation was added to the Water Resources Development Act in April, improving its chances of passing. But the act needed to make it out of a conference committee — in which House and Senate officials reconcile differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill and agree on what would remain in the bill — by the end of the session.

Monday, officials released the reconciled bill, renamed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. After compromises elsewhere in the act, the bill still includes the legislation to return Kennewick Man’s skeleton to tribes.

The bill will require a vote of the House, which is expected in the next few days, followed by a vote of the Senate.

“This is about doing right by the descendants of the Ancient One,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. “After more than 20 years of debate, I’m proud to see this legislation so close to finally bringing the Ancient One home.”

Because of uncertainty that the legislation would proceed, Northwest tribes have been preparing a case to claim the bones under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The bones of Kennewick Man, called the Ancient One by the tribes, were found along the Columbia River in the summer of 1996 on Army Corps of Engineers land in Kennewick. The skeleton is one of the oldest and most complete sets of bones found in North America.

Area tribes immediately claimed the bones, but a federal judge, swayed by an analysis of the shape of Kennewick Man’s skull, determined that the skeleton was not Native American and allowed scientists to study the bones.

Advances in DNA analysis led to a finding by a global team of scientists, including specialists in ancient DNA analysis at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, that the Ancient One’s DNA is more closely related to contemporary Native Americans than any their living population. The contemporary Native Americans, include Colville members, volunteered DNA for the study.

Although DNA from other Columbia Basin tribes claiming the bones was not tested, the tribes have long intermarried.

Shortly after the results of the June study were announced, the Wanapum Band and the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Colville tribes again called for the return of the bones.

As Murray worked in the Senate, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., moved to get legislation that would return the bones to the tribes included in the House version of the Water Resources Development Act. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., also has worked on legislation.

“Two decades after his discovery, it is finally time to return the human remains to the Columbia Basin tribes, where he belongs,” Newhouse said in a statement Monday.

The legislation would require the Army Corps to transfer the Ancient One’s bones to the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, which has regulations in place to repatriate tribal remains.

The tribes already have selected an undisclosed site for the burial. The bones now are being held at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle.

If the legislation is not approved as expected, the tribes are preparing to claim them through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

The Corps already has taken the first step under NAGPRA, determining the DNA evidence correctly determined Kennewick Man is Native American.

The area tribes would next need to show a cultural affiliation with the Ancient One.

“Just like anyone else, we want to bury our grandfather or grandmother,” said Kate Valdez, tribal historic preservation officer for the Yakima Nation, during Archaeological Days at the Wanapum Heritage Center in October.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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