The ancient bones of Kennewick Man should soon be laid to rest.
The House and Senate have each passed legislation ordering the bones turned over to Columbia Basin tribes. The bill headed Saturday to the president’s desk to be signed into law.
“We come from this land and when we pass, we return to this land, as our relative the Ancient One did more than 9,000 years ago,” said JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama National Tribal Council. “Now with the help from our friends in Congress, he will be returned so that he may finally rest.”
The Columbia Basin tribes have selected an undisclosed burial place for the Ancient One.
The Ancient One, as the skeleton is called by Columbia Basin tribes, was found on the banks of the Columbia River 20 years ago by two college students during the Water Follies festival. The skeleton is among the oldest and most complete found in North America.
Tribes immediately filed claims for 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.
I, and many others, wish this fight had not taken 20 years as this has been a long and tumultuous journey.
JoDe Goudy, Yakama National Tribal Council chairman
It was scientific study that determined the bones likely are those of an ancestor of today’s Native Americans.
Advances in DNA analysis allowed a global team, including specialists in ancient DNA analysis at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, to compare DNA from the bones with that of modern-day populations.
The Ancient One’s DNA was a closer match to modern Native Americans, including the Colvilles, than any other modern peoples. Scientists put the age of the bones at 8,400 years old.
The bones have been requested for burial by a coalition of Columbia Basin tribes that not only have a shared history, but have intermarried through the centuries and likely have similar DNA. The coalition includes the Wanapum Band and the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Colville tribes.
“(The tribes) impressed upon me just how much it meant to them for Congress to end decades of debate and to give them the opportunity to give their descendants a proper burial and a final resting place,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Saturday.
She introduced a bill in 2015, after DNA analysis results were announced, to require the bones to be turned over to the tribes.
The legislation moved forward when she and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., succeeded in attaching it to House and Senate versions of a larger bill, the Water Resources Development Act, recently renamed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The Senate passed the bill early Saturday in an all-night session before adjourning until 2017.
“I, and many others, wish this fight had not taken 20 years as this has been a long and tumultuous journey,” Goudy said.
The tribes also have been pursuing a claim for the bones under the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, in case the current congressional session ended without passage of the Water Resources Development Act.
If they had needed to proceed under NAGPRA, there was the potential for a challenge by scientists or others objecting to the repatriation of the skeleton.