SEATTLE — Five tribal bands claiming Kennewick Man as a relative, including the Yakama Nation, will work together to rebury him after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday it has validated the skeleton is Native American.
Scientists at the University of Chicago this month documented they were able to independently validate last summer’s scientific findings as to the skeleton’s ancestry by at least three lines of evidence, said John Novembre, associate professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago, who led the review.
The validation was part of a federal process to allow repatriation of the skeleton. The team’s finding clears the way for the next steps, in which potential claimants of the remains must now document their cultural connection to the Ancient One, as tribes refer to the skeleton.
Kennewick Man is one of the oldest and most complete skeletons discovered in North America, dating back nearly 9,000 years.
Debate has continued since the 1996 discovery as to whether the remains should continue to be studied by scientists, or reburied, as tribes have long wished.
The breakthrough in confirming the ancestry of the skeleton after years of research came with DNA testing, which enabled scientists to compare DNA in an ancient finger bone from Kennewick Man with saliva samples from Colville tribal members, where genetic similarities were confirmed.
That research was performed by Morten Rasmussen and Eske Willerslev and their collaborators at the Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, with results published in July 2015 in the journal Nature.
The next steps in the repatriation process will be taken cooperatively between tribes that have fought for reburial ever since two students discovered the skeleton washed out of a bank of the Columbia River on Corps of Engineers property during hydroplane races in Kennewick.
The area where the skeleton was found was ceded by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation during the treaty of 1855. But it’s part of a Columbia Plateau landscape that would also have been visited and traveled through by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation; the Wanapum Band; the Yakama Nation; and Nez Perce. All of those tribes consider the Ancient One a relative.
Traditionally, repatriation would be to a site as close as possible to where the skeleton was originally interred, said Rex Buck Jr., leader of the Wanapum people whose ancestral lands are at Priest Rapids Dam near Mattawa, Grant County.
Tribes welcomed the news from the Corps.
“Obviously we are hearing an acknowledgment from the Corps of what we have been saying for 20 years,” said JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation. “Now we want to collectively do what is right, and bring our relative back for reburial.”
Michael Coffey, a spokeswoman for the Corps Northwestern Division, said the agency by law had to verify the findings before allowing the next steps in repatriation to proceed. She said it may be February 2017 before cultural ties can be affirmed so repatriation may take place.
Until then, the skeleton will remain at the Burke Museum of History and Culture. Tribes visit the Ancient One regularly, and will continue to do so, said Chuck Sams, spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “In keeping with our traditions and our law, he has been displaced, and we continue to offer our prayers and our hopes for a safe journey back to the land again.”
Meanwhile, federal legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray also is advancing, with language calling for repatriation of the skeleton tucked into a water bill scheduled to be heard in committee as soon as Thursday.
The legislation does not affect the Corps going forward with its process, Coffey said. Nor does the Corp’s process put Murray off the legislation, said Kerry Arndt of Murray’s staff:
“Because this is just one step of many in the process the Army Corps must follow, Sen. Murray will continue to push her legislation forward in the Senate to ensure that one way or another, the remains go to their rightful place.”
The remains have been at the center of controversy since the initial find.
The Corps’ early decision to hand the bones over to local tribes resulted in a lawsuit from a team of scientists, headed by Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution, who argued the find should be preserved for study. Owsley later said his research showed that not only wasn’t Kennewick Man Indian, he wasn’t even from the Columbia Valley. Owsley argued he seemed to be from the coast, because of high levels of isotopes from marine-derived nutrients in his bones.
Isotopes in the bones told scientists Kennewick Man was a hunter of marine mammals, such as seals, Owsley said. “They are not what you would expect for someone from the Columbia Valley,” he said in an October 2012 meeting with tribal leaders. “You would have to eat salmon 24 hours a day and you would not reach these values.
“This is a man from the coast, not a man from here. I think he is a coastal man.”
That work was overturned by the Rasmussen/Willerslev team’s genetic testing.