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Kennewick Man: a never-ending nightmare for tribes

A clay reconstruction of Kennewick Man's face was created based on the bone structure. Credit: Brittney Titchnell/Smithsonian Institute

The most unique quality of Kennewick Man, the 8,500-year-old skeleton that eroded out of a Columbia River bank nearly 20 years ago, is his knack for being an ongoing catalyst for controversy.

Now, with much of the scientific debate resolved, there are signs of a possible battle over a final resting place for the remains of K-Man, known as the Ancient One to Native Americans. In August an impatient U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, stepped in to try and speed up a decision on what to do with his remains, ensconced at Seattle’s Burke Museum. She is sponsoring a Senate bill (S 1979) that would leapfrog the long federal process of repatriation—the very system that is supposed to return remains to tribes but which might just be used to stand in the way of Kennewick Man’s receiving a proper reburial soon.

In 1996, a group of archaeologists sued in federal court for the right to study the ancient remains, won that right in 2004, and have done so, producing a book of scholarly research and performing tests of Kennewick Man’s recovered DNA. Earlier this year, the question of just who he was—Native American relative or prehistoric “wanderer”—seemed to come into focus: Genetic testing by a Danish-led international group, the results of which were published in the scientific journal Nature, confirmed that K-Man was much more closely related to Native Americans than any other living group. The testing also showed that he shared common ancestry with members of the local Colville tribe, a tribe in the region of the remains find and one that has claimed an ancestral connection.

That revelation spurred a group of five tribes with Columbia Basin ties—the Colville, Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Wanapum—to renew their demand that the bones be repatriated to them for burial as prescribed under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Remains found on federal lands fall under that 1990 law, and the repatriation of Kennewick Man is the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers, the entity that controls the area where his bones were recovered. The tribes believe that the Ancient One’s Native American affiliation has now been scientifically established and that swift return should follow, as the law provides.

At the time of the DNA announcement, Anthony Johnson of the Nez Perce made a plea for their timely return. “You have confirmation. You have the truth,” he said. “The reburial of Kennewick Man is important to Native American healing.” Tribes involved also expressed concern that the controversy would drag on.

In the meantime, the bones remain at the Burke at an average cost of $25,000 per year. The Army Corps of Engineers Northwest Division, based in Portland, is going through the process of documenting tribal affiliation under the terms of NAGPRA so K-Man can be repatriated. Since the current situation was the result of a lawsuit, they want to make sure that their actions hold up to scrutiny and challenge. Corps spokesperson Michael Coffey says the Corps is doing its due diligence, carefully following NAGPRA. After all, Coffey says, “We were in court before.”

Under NAGPRA the officials must assemble a “preponderance” of evidence demonstrating a cultural affiliation with current tribes, Coffey says. They have the biological/DNA puzzle piece, but NAGPRA also looks for evidence via geography, kinship, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, oral tradition and other historical evidence. With bones so ancient, some of these categories can prove to be problematic. Expert opinion is important too, but as the case of K-Man has shown to date, experts can differ.

While the bureaucratic process grinds on, Sen. Murray has stepped in to speed things up by introducing the Senate bill, would end run NAGPRA in Kennewick Man’s case. Called the Bring the Ancient One Home Act of 2015, Murray’s bill would order the remains be turned over to Washington State’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Through the state’s established process of repatriating native remains, Kennewick Man could be returned promptly to the tribes.

Allyson Brooks, the head of the state Archaeology and Preservation Office, favors the plan, which she says could be as easy as simply calling the tribes and telling them to come and pick up the bones. A secret burial site has reportedly been agreed upon by the claimant tribes. The Corps has no comment on the bill, as it is pending legislation.

Letters of support for Murray’s bill have come from the Washington Trust and National Trust for Historic Preservation and the current and past presidents of the Association for Washington Archaeology, something that Brooks says shows this is not an archaeologists vs. tribes debate. Brooks, an archaeologist herself, is impatient because the process has taken too long. “When somebody has 19 years to study something, it’s time to return. England only took three years with Richard the III,” she notes, referring to the recent reburial of the king whose body was found under a parking lot.

Not everyone is entirely comfortable with Murray’s bill. Peter Lape, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and curator of archaeology at the Burke, is in favor of repatriation and has a good deal of experience through the museum with the NAGPRA process. He’s concerned that returning the bones via state law instead of the established NAGPRA might make the process “vulnerable to the probable legal challenges.” Still, the Burke is a neutral party, and it will act as instructed.

Whatever means are used, the return of the bones could be challenged. Some scientists who have studied the bones have said they are not convinced tribal affiliation under NAGPRA has yet been established. In June, archaeologist James Chatters, who was the first to study the bones, said a DNA “second opinion” was needed. And the Walla Walla Union Bulletin reported that Douglas Owsley, head of physical anthropology for the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History and one of the previous K-Man science litigants, says his research indicates K-Man was a “traveler,” and that we neither know who K-Man’s people were or what their culture was. So, while some experts are prepared to put K-Man to rest, others say that science isn’t finished with him.

In a lengthy letter to Murray earlier this month, the state’s Brooks challenges some of the claims that K-Man’s skull is distinctly different from those of other Native Americans, calling that analysis flawed. Robert Kopperl, president of the Association of Washington Archaeologists, and the group’s past president, Thomas Becker, wrote a letter last week in support of the Murray bill saying, “[W]e have noticed a trend of opinion among professional archaeologists growing for some time now that the studies have served their purpose in demonstrating that this man was Native American, and that the time for repatriation is long past due.”

In this state, the political forces are leaning toward repatriation. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee supports it, as does 4th District Republican Congressman Dan Newhouse, who represents central Washington. Whether the U.S. Senate will pass the bill is still a question, as is whether it will see companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

Murray’s take is straightforward: “After nearly two decades of legal wrangling and scientific studying, it’s well past time to return these prehistoric remains to their rightful place. 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.”

If nothing else, by sponsoring the bill Patty Murray is making a strong statement that the time for the Ancient One’s reburial is here. Unfortunately, paperwork, gridlock and the potential for controversy haven’t been put to rest either.

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