Northwest tribes set to reclaim ancestor known as the Ancient One

Members of the Umatilla Tribes participate in an annual treaty day parade. Photo by Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation

A bill to return the remains of an ancestor to five Pacific Northwest tribes is on its way to President Barack Obama for his signature.

A provision in S.612, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, resolves a long-running dispute over the Ancient One, otherwise known as the Kennewick Man. The Umatilla Tribes, the Colville Tribes, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Yakama Nation and the Wanapum Tribe will be able to rebury their relative once the bill becomes law.

“Our ancestor has been denied his right to a proper burial for twenty years,” said Armand Minthorn, a member of the board of trustees for the Umatilla Tribes, said in a press release. “We are glad for this long overdue decision, our efforts will not cease until he returns to his people once and for always. We will rest when he can rest.”

The remains were discovered on Umatila-ceded territory in Washington state in 1996. They date back more than 8,400 years and non-Indian scientists, include some who work for the federal government, immediately questioned whether they could be linked to present-day tribes.

Extensive analysis, including DNA testing, demonstrated otherwise. His closest living relatives in fact belong to the Colville Tribes.

The remains of the Kennewick Man were found at this site along the Columbia River in Washington. The land used to belong the Umatilla Tribes until it was ceded by treaty. Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

"I’m very grateful to the 22 Colville tribal members who provided DNA samples to help prove that the Ancient One is not only Native American, but our relative," Chairman Michael Marchand said in September, when the provision was included in the national water bill.

The remains are currently in the custody of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The agency was prepared to return them to the tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act until non-Indian scientists filed a lawsuit.

The case led to a devastating ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which stated that Kennewick Man was too old to be covered by NAGPRA.

Although the Army Corps in April came up with a revised decision that once again linked the Ancient One to his tribal descendants, a bipartisan group of lawmakers stepped in with the provision that resolves the long-running dispute.

"This victory would not have been possible without the determination, collaboration, and leadership of the claimant tribes of the Columbia River plateau, who 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 descendant a proper burial and a final resting place," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) said in a press release on Saturday, when S.612, also known as the WIIN Act, cleared its final hurdle in the 114th Congress.

"Two decades after his discovery, it is finally time to return the human remains to the Columbia Basin tribes where he belongs," Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Washington) said in a press release.

The lawmakers, representing districts in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, had separately introduced the Bring the Ancient One Home Act [H.R.4131 | S.1979] before it was included in the water bill. It requires the Army Corps to transfer the remains to the Washington Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, which would then return them to the tribes.

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