Sen. Murray introduces bill to repatriate Kennewick Man to tribes

A reconstruction of the skull of Kennewick Man by a scientist who doesn't believe the remains are Native American. Photo from Wikipedia

Tribes in the Pacific Northwest will finally get to reclaim one of their ancestors if Congress enacts legislation that was introduced in the Senate last week.

The Colville Tribes, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Umatilla Tribes and the Yakama Nation have been seeking to rebury the 8,400-year-old remains of the Kennewick Man ever since they were discovered in 1996. They refer to him as Techaminsh Oytpamanatityt, which means "From the Land, the First Native" in one of the languages on the Yakama Reservation.

The ancestor, though, is being kept in storage at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington. He's been studied by researchers who went to court to prevent the federal government from returning the remains to the tribes.

“After nearly two decades of legal wrangling and scientific studying, it’s well past time to return these prehistoric remains to their rightful place,” Sen. Patty Murray said in a press release. “This is simply the right thing to do, and the sooner we begin the process of repatriation, the sooner we can ensure we are honoring the wishes of the Kennewick Man’s descendants.”

As a result of those studies, Murray noted that a genetic analysis confirms Kennewick Man was Native American. The tests showed a direct link to present-day Native peoples -- more specifically, to those living in Washington.

“We find that Kennewick Man is closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide,” researchers wrote in a study that appeared in Nature in June.

"Among the Native American groups for whom genome-wide data are available for comparison, several seem to be descended from a population closely related to that of Kennewick Man, including the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, one of the five tribes claiming Kennewick Man," they continued.

Despite the confirmed link, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is not able to return the remains because the scientists who studied him secured an extremely negative decision that weakens the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. In 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Kennewick Man was too old to be covered by the 1990 law.

Efforts to address the decision in Congress were met with extreme opposition from the scientific community. Legislation to add just two words to NAGPRA to ensue that the law covers ancient remains failed to advance in 2007 and in 2005 and the issue hasn't been brought up again.

S.1979, the Bring the Ancient One Home Act, avoids the controversy by directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to transfer the Kennewick Man to the Washington Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, which would allow the tribes to lay his body back to rest.

“The Ancient One is our relative and we have the responsibility to respectfully rebury him,” Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy said in a statement, using another translation of the Native name for the Kennewick Man. “Return of the Ancient One is the respectful thing to do and we ask for the support of the non-Indian community for this legislation, just as we support the proper interment of all ancestors.”

The Ancient One was discovered in 1996 on federal land that was ceded through a treaty with the Umatilla Tribes. The reservation once covered 6.4 million acres in Washington and Oregon but the tribes are now based in Oregon.

The Army Corps manages the land where the remains were found.

9th Circuit Decision:
Bonnichsen v US (February 4, 2004)

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Remains of 12,600-year-old Native toddler reburied in Montana (06/30)
DNA of girl found in Mexico linked to present-day Native people (05/15)
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