It was a hot summer day in July of 1996 when two men accidentally found part of a human skull near the shore of the Columbia River outside of Kennewick. What was supposed to be a fun day of spectating the annual hydroplane races for Will Thomas and David Deacy quickly took a dramatic turn, leading to an archaeological find of the century and a controversy that would last for more than a decade. Over the next few days, a dig was conducted, and some three hundred bone elements and fragments were collected over the next month. In the end, 90% of an adult male human skeleton was unearthed. To scientists, he was Kennewick Man but to Native Americans, he was the Ancient One. As for the rest of us, he was a remarkable glimpse into the past of early residents of our beautiful North America.
Questions immediately arose from the tremendous discovery, yet few answers could be given due to the time period. The technology needed to thoroughly trace Kennewick Man’s ancestry was not yet developed, so there was no way to do a DNA analysis. Radiocarbon tests were done, with the results indicating that the skeleton was between 8,900 and 9,000 years old.
Such a remarkable discovery immediately sparked public interest, and with it came controversy. The stretch of river where the remains were found is an area of the Umatilla Tribe’s traditional homeland. This sparked special attention from the tribe, believing that Kennewick Man was one of their ancestors. As a result, they requested custody of the Ancient One’s remains as they wanted to bury him according to their tribal tradition.
Their claim was immediately contested by researchers hoping to study the remains. What would come next would be a nine-year court case between the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), scientists, and Native American tribes, all attempting to claim ownership of the body.
Thus began the saga of Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons to ever be found in the United States. He was naturally an object of deep fascination from the moment he was discovered, making the remains a coveted item among scientists and historians alike. Initially, ownership seemed in favor of the scientists as the archaeologist James Chatters who did the first official study of the skeleton, concluded that the skull had “Caucasoid” traits and a lack of definitive Native American characteristics. Through this observation, he declared that Kennewick Man had no direct lineage to the Umatilla Tribe, and therefore, they had no claim to the Ancient One.
But the tribe could feel in their own bones that the bones of the Ancient One were indeed one of their own. Even though the technology at the time couldn’t test his DNA to prove it, the Umatilla People presented their history as evidence in the case, arguing that their oral history goes back 10,000 years and that their people have inhabited the land in which the Ancient One was found since the dawn of time. Five tribes in the area banded together and demanded that Kennewick Man’s remains not be poked or prodded in the name of science and instead be promptly reburied in accordance with their tribal customs. They invoked the Native American Graves Protection and Reparation Act (NAGPRA) in their defense, a federal law passed in 1990 that required Native American artifacts and remains that had been unlawfully obtained or taken from them to be handed over to culturally affiliate tribes or provable descendants.
In an effort to counter their claims, a group of scholars representing USACE, which was in charge of managing the land where the remains were found, sued the federal government to prevent the remains from being returned to the tribes under the NAGPRA. The scientists argued that since Kennewick Man couldn’t be genetically proven to be related to present-day tribes, they should not be subject to this act and should instead be available to the scientific community for study.
What would ensue would be a decade-long battle, with the court finding in favor of the scientists. In April of 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ended up upholding an earlier decision by the U.S. District Court Judge Jelderks that the remains could not officially be defined as “Native American” under the NAGPRA law and therefore should be available to the scientific community so that they could continue to study this incredibly rare find of nearly complete prehistoric human remains.
Despite the verdict, the tribes didn’t give up. They continued to fight on behalf of their believed to be ancestor for another decade. They continued their quest for evidence to prove that he was one of theirs, and relief finally came in June 2015. More than two dozen tribe members provided DNA samples for comparison with Kennewick Man to scientists at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Through these samples and new, modern DNA testing, they could confirm that the Ancient One was indeed one of their own. Not only was it determined that he was directly related to modern Native Americans, but they were also able to say with confidence that he was indeed related to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation that resided in the region in which his bones were found. They could pinpoint his tribe, that of the Colville People, and thus, help the Ancient One find his way home.
In the end, it really was all in the bones, and the mystery of the Kennewick Man was finally solved. The following September of 2016, the U.S. House and Senate passed legislation to return the ancient bones to a coalition of Columbia Basin Tribes for reburial according to their traditions. Kennewick Man was laid to rest on February 18, 2017, with 200 members of the five Columbia Basin Tribes in attendance. Finally, they were able to lay their past ancestor to rest in a private ceremony in accordance with the traditions of his tribe so that he may once again return to the Earth and be at peace.