Kennewick Man Clay Model
A clay facial reconstruction of the Ancient One shows what he may have looked like.

The Ancient One Takes Another Step Toward Home

Richard Walker

The return of the Ancient One to his home is nearer.

Federal legislation first introduced in 2015 ordering the repatriation of the Ancient One, or Kennewick Man, was approved on September 15 by the U.S. Senate as part of another bill.

The legislation now moves to the U.S. House of Representatives. If approved, SB 2848 will require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “transfer the human remains known as Kennewick Man or the Ancient One to the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation,” on the condition that Washington state repatriate the remains to the Ancient One’s relatives: the Colville Tribes, Nez Perce Tribe, Umatilla Tribes, Yakama Nation, and Wanapum Tribe.

“As we recognize the Ancient One’s discovery, we also mourn for him,” Umatilla Tribes board member Armand Minthorn said on August 28 during a gathering near the Columbia River site where the Ancient One was found 20 years earlier. “He is our ancestor, and yet he lies in a museum rather than [resting] with his people. It’s been 20 years, and he is still being denied his right to a proper burial.”

Two men found the Ancient One on July 28, 1996, about 10 feet off shore at Columbia Park in Kennewick, Washington. The Ancient One was determined to be nearly 9,000 years old.

A court allowed scientists to study the Ancient One, in order to determine his origin. Native governments of the Columbia Plateau fought to have him returned for reburial. In 2013, genetics experts, using new DNA techniques, determined that the Ancient One is most closely connected by DNA to the Native people of the Plateau, clearing the way for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repatriate him through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

Asked about the status of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ repatriation efforts, public affairs chief Amy J. Gaskill wrote to ICTMN: 

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Northwestern Division, confirmed a Native American determination under NAGPRA on April 26, 2016. Since that time Corps staff have been developing a Priority of Custody (cultural affiliation) document, to fulfill the next step in the NAGPRA process. We propose to be completed with this step in late 2016/early 2017. No specific timeline for repatriation has been determined. Corps leadership has been meeting with tribal policy and staff representatives on a regular basis for the past several years.”

Supporters say the legislation will speed the Ancient One’s return.

With the help of bill sponsor Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, “we are now one step closer to repatriating the Ancient One,” Umatilla Tribes spokesman Chuck Sams said in a statement released after the bill was approved by the Senate.

“Today we celebrate, but the battle has yet to be won. It will only be when the Ancient One has the honor of being laid to rest with our ancestors that we can truly rejoice. It is our hope that the members of the U.S. House of Representatives see the validity of our cause and move forward with a swift passage.”

Umatilla Tribes board member Aaron Ashley said Congress needs to pass the legislation “because 20 years of delay have demonstrated that there is no guarantee that the law will prevail. The Ancient One’s Native American identity has been proven beyond a doubt. It is time to expedite the return process so he can properly be laid to rest.”

Murray said of the legislation, “After more than 20 years of debate, it’s time to return the Ancient One to his rightful resting place. I’m proud to see this legislation so close to the finish line. I’ll be fighting to ensure we get this done to honor his descendants and write the final chapter on the history of the Ancient One.”

Murray’s initial legislation, the Bring the Ancient One Home Act, was introduced in 2015 and garnered three co-sponsors. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Tacoma, introduced a House version that garnered 13 co-sponsors. Neither progressed out of committee.

Murray’s bill was included in the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 and was approved by the Senate 95-3. It authorizes and revises various Corps of Engineers water resources development and conservation projects, and authorizes the Corps of Engineers to conduct final feasibility studies for projects in 17 states. It requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to establish a grant program to rehabilitate non-federal at-risk dams. It also provides additional assistance to states with emergency public health threats associated with lead or other contaminants in public drinking water systems.

It also requires the Corps of Engineers to transfer the Ancient One to the State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for return to his relatives.

Representatives of those Native Nations say the Ancient One will be laid to rest in an undisclosed location.

A report by the National Park Service Archeology Program gives a glimpse of the Ancient One and his life.

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