Inslee wants tribal reburial for Kennewick Man

Crosscut archive image.

A clay reconstruction of Kennewick Man's face was created based on the bone structure.

Gov. Jay Inslee wants the 8,500-year-old Kennewick Man remains returned to several Inland Northwest tribes for burial.

On Tuesday, Inslee sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — who are in charge of the skeleton dubbed “Kennewick Man” by non-Indians and “the Ancient One” by the tribes — to request the remains be repatriated. His remains are kept in the basement of the University of Washington’s Burke Museum.

In 2002, scientists won a long legal battle with the tribes to study the remains, which were discovered in 1996. In recent years, the Smithsonian Institute and other scientists have unveiled results of those studies. A recently published Danish study concluded that Kennewick Man is genetically linked to Northwest tribes.

“Now that DNA analysis has demonstrated a genetic link to modern Native Americans, including those in the State of Washington, I am requesting that the Ancient One be repatriated to the appropriate Tribes as expeditiously as possible,” Inslee wrote. “Our Washington State tribes have waited nineteen years for the remains to be transferred for reburial. During this time several studies have been completed, from the recent DNA analysis to numerous books. Rarely have Native American human remains been subjected to such intensive investigations and examinations.”

“The latest results, having ended many of the questions surrounding the identity of Kennewick Man, means that it is time we respect the Tribes’ repeated requests for repatriation,” Inslee added.

Inslee asked the Army to provide a timeline for the repatriation of the Ancient One and offered help from the Washington State Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation.

Several Inland Northwest tribes have agreed upon a secret reburial site.

Tribes involved with the remains include the Wanapum, the Yakama Indian Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Nez Perce, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.

The skeleton was discovered in 1996 along Kennewick's Columbia River shoreline. The skeleton — incredibly intact for being 8,500 years old — sparked a legal duel between Mid-Columbia tribal nations and a group of anthropologists led by the Smithsonian Institute. The tribes argued that the skeleton is one of their ancestors and should be reburied in accordance with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. But the anthropologists wanted to study the bones, and argued that there was no evidence of a direct relationship between the skeleton and today's tribes.

Part of the dispute's background has been a practice of anthropologists digging up Indian remains and storing them in museums, often unstudied, and violating Native American spiritual beliefs. The Smithsonian was a repository of unstudied Indian skeletons until Congress passed the 1990 law to begin repatriation of remains.

In 2002, a group of anthropologists won federal court approval to study the skeleton. Meanwhile, both sides agreed to store the skeleton at the neutral Burke Museum at the University of Washington, where it is today. The anthropologists physically examined Kennewick Man for two–a-half weeks split in two segments in 2005 and 2006. For the following six years, more than a dozen experts analyzed the bones in numerous ways.

The scientists concluded that the man came from the West Coast, based on naturally occurring isotopes in his bones that pointed toward a diet of marine animals such as seals. Kennewick Man was a wandering hunter, 5-foot 7 or 8 inches, theoretically 160 pounds, with a major league baseball-caliber right spear-throwing arm and a Polynesian-like face with good teeth.

The team concluded that he was younger at his death than originally estimated — likely 39 or 40, rather than 50. A stone projectile point — a spearhead — was found in his right hip. The Ancient One also has some healed fractured ribs, indicating he had been banged up badly sometime before his death. Though he was purposefully buried along the Columbia River, scientists have not figured out how he died.

Last week, the scientific journal Nature published an article from researchers in a Danish DNA study that linked Kennewick Man to Northwest tribes.

The DNA sample used for the Danish study was extracted from bones previously tapped for genetic material. The research team included scientists from Copenhagen, but also U.S. institutions such as Stanford, Southern Methodist University and University of California Berkeley.

The DNA was compared against samples from North and South American tribes, and with other available databases. Some tribes refused to provide DNA samples — the Umatilla, for example — while the Colville, after much discussion and consultation with elders, decided to participate in the study.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8