Kennewick Man’s Bones Reburied, Settling a Decades-Long Debate

By Amy Klinkhammer | February 21, 2017 4:47 pm

(Credit: Brittney Tatchell/Smithsonian Institution)

Unearthed in 1996 after part of his skull was found along the shores of the Columbia River in Washington, Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old Paleoamerican, would soon be regarded as the most important human skeletal discovery in American history.

A Crisis of Ancient Identity

When two college students reported that they had found a skull fragment in the river, scientists responded quickly. After searching for and collecting nearly 300 other pieces of bone, they were able to determine that the set of remains was one of the oldest and most complete human skeletons ever recovered.

Kennewick Man became the subject of an intense legal feud between the scientists who wished to continue studying him, and members of local Native American tribes who believed that he was an ancient ancestor and should therefore undergo a sacred burial in his homeland. And that’s where the trouble began. As Discover reported in 2015:

The United States Army Corps of Engineers maintained the land where Kennewick Man was found; furthermore, that particular stretch of the Columbia also fell within the borders of sacred homeland claimed by five Pacific Northwest Native American tribes. Shortly after scientists confirmed Kennewick Man’s age, the Army Corps took possession of the skeleton and ended further studies, a move that provided the spark for a prolonged battle in the courts.

In 1990 George W. Bush signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, as reparations for the disrespectful manner in which Native American remains were treated in the past. The law serves as a means for Native Americans to gain possession of cultural items – bones included – that once belonged to their ancestors if cultural affiliation, or a connection to their lineage, could be established. NAGPRA served as the legal umbrella for the Army Corps’ seizure of Kennewick Man.

The government’s actions inspired a band of eight scientists, led by anthropologist Douglas Owsley, to take a big risk and sue the United States government to gain control of the remains for the sake of scientific inquiry. In 2000, the then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt determined that the remains belonged to the tribe, and ordered their return.

However, in 2002, the scales shifted in favor of the scientists. U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks ruled that the skeleton wasn’t related to Native Americans based on its physical features, and therefore that NAGPRA didn’t apply in this case. The remains were turned over to the scientists, and the decision was upheld in appeals.

The decision was a blow to the five tribes. “Scientists have dug up and studied American Indians for decades,” Umatilla tribe spokesperson Armand Minthorn wrote in 1996. “We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs.”

In 2004, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the appeal from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the Kennewick Man’s skull bore a closer resemblance to those of Asian and Polynesian descent than that of a Native American.

Kennewick Man’s remains were cared for at the Burke Museum in Seattle, and were not displayed. Since the 2004 decision, scientists have studied the remains extensively and learned much about this man.

A Twist In DNA

Genomic testing was not a factor during the preliminary litigations, but years later when the gene technologies were accessible, a controversial study would reopen Kennewick Man’s case, and then close it once and for all.

The study, published in the journal Nature in June 2015, showed that previous analyses claiming the Kennewick Man was of Asian origin were incorrect. Though he could not be linked to any particular nation, his genome was Native American, and likely from the people groups in the Pacific Northwest.

In December 2016, President Obama signed a legislation that would allow the Kennewick Man to be returned to his homeland and laid to rest.

The Ancient One Sleeps

Last Friday, over 20 years after his initial discovery, dozens of boxes holding the Kennewick Man’s remains were retrieved by nearly 30 members of the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Colville and Wanapum tribes. The following morning, over 200 members of the same tribes gave him a proper burial in a secret location in the Columbia Basin.

In a statement to the press, Burke Museum officials said they felt that this was “the right decision” and “long overdue.”

JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council added that “The Ancient One, may now finally find peace, and we, his relatives, will equally feel content knowing that this work has been completed on his behalf.”


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology
  • Uncle Al

    Anything religion touches rots. If Satan were anything, she would be a belief system, ontological confabulations vs. epistemically bloviated beliefs.

  • Doktor Wunderbar

    I would be more offended by the idea that, if someone finds my bones in 9,000 years, they would stick them back in the dirt rather than learn as much as they can from them.

  • Yankel Goilem

    It’s our human nature to care for the remains of people we love, and to abuse the remains of our dead enemies. I think this is an instinct that predates religion, like the human instincts to speak, sing and dance. Even some of the higher non-human animals seem to revere and mourn their own dead, and abuse an enemy’s corpse.

    American Indian remains have often been treated very disrespectfully by white Americans. Bodies have not only been dug up for study, but put on display for entertainment and as trophies. I am glad that is now illegal.

    There was a reasonable opportunity to study the Kennewick remains. It’s time they were repatriated and cared for. There is a cost to showing respect, and I’m glad we paid it.

    • Debra Klyne

      They didn’t “love” this individual. They know nothing specific of whose ancestor he would have been. These folks who pursue these issues are arrogant activists, who seek every possible opportunity to take a hit at the white man. I’ve met a few of them personally. Not a single one of them would I care to associate with. Nor they me, as they hate what I am without knowing any more than the color of my skin.

      • OWilson

        If you are white, you are a target in this world.

        It’s ok to hate white folk.

        Even if they gave you civilization, and spilled their blood for your right to hate them!

        • Yankel Goilem

          This thread took an interesting direction. I am an agent, not a victim. No one is oppressing me. If someone hates me for no reason, it’s their loss, I haven’t got the time. C-y’all.

      • Normandie Kent

        Stop crying about how they are after the ” white man” ! You sound like a big wanking cry baby! Actually they don’t even think about you, as long as you stay out of their business! And what does Kenniwick man have to do with ” white men”? Oh poor creature! You thought he was white, didn’t you?! Well to friggen bad! That’s your own inferior mentality! He was never going to be a ” white man!” What a loser you are! Thes remains are their cultural patrimony! You have no cultural patrimony. They have every right to be activists for their rights to their own heritage and ancestors. If you don’t like it , go to hell!

        • OWilson

          Cultural opportunism.

          All about shaming, phony spiritualism, and of course land reparations which can lead to lucrative self regulated Casino and reservation cigarette marketing.

          Since Native Americans were constantly at war with their neighbors, it is likely that this stiff was an enemy of most and when alive could easily have been eaten.

          Nothing says respect for another human like cannibalism, :)

  • OWilson

    Are the museums showing disrespect and exploiting for our ancestors by commercial displays of dinosaur skeletons, apes, monkeys and early homos?

    Where’s the line?

  • Rex

    If someone digs up the bones of Abraham Lincoln or Queen Victoria and decides to pack them into a box in a lab for studies, I wonder how the whites will feel.

    • Debra Klyne

      Wouldn’t bother me because I’m not stupidly superstitious. If it had value to inform as to science or history, I’d be strongly in favor, in fact.

    • OWilson

      Not a problem!

      Why would you think it would be?

    • ECarpenter

      I’d say hurrah! They’re studying the bones of Lincoln and Victoria!

      As long as they preserved all, or nearly all, of the bone for the future, and used non-invasive tools for their studies, it’d be a good thing to do.

      You can learn many things about a person’s life from their bones that you can’t learn any other way.

  • ECarpenter

    Whatever the current beliefs of some of the Native American cultures, there’s no evidence that the people who lived in the same area 9000 years ago held the same beliefs about the world and their place in it. They didn’t speak the same languages, they didn’t have the same social structures – they were completely different cultures.

    Any similarities between modern and ancient beliefs from that long ago is purely coincidental, or heavily influenced by our genetic predispositions to believe in just a few categories of the supernatural.


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