Columbia Plateau tribes rebury the Ancient One (Kennewick Man) on February 18, 2017.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 11/21/2020
  • Essay 21141
See Additional Media

On February 18, 2017, in a private ceremony attended by some 200 tribal members and staff, the Umatilla, Yakama, Colville, Wanapum, and Nez Perce tribes rebury the ancestor they honor as the Ancient One. The reburial, at an undisclosed location on the Columbia Plateau above the Columbia River, comes one day after the remains were turned over to tribal leaders at the Burke Museum in Seattle, where they had been since 1998, and more than 20 years after they were discovered along the river in Kennewick in Central Washington. The 1996 discovery of the nearly complete 8,500-year-old skeleton, quickly dubbed Kennewick Man, touched off a lengthy struggle between the tribes, who recognized the Ancient One as an ancestor and sought to rebury him, and eight anthropologists and archaeologists, who sued for and won the right to study the remains and said their research showed Kennewick Man was not related to Native Americans. But DNA testing in 2015 and 2016 determined the Ancient One to be Native American, leading to his repatriation to the tribes and reburial.

Contested Ancestry

Although it took cutting-edge science nearly 20 years to reach the same conclusion, members of tribes across the Columbia Plateau whose ancestral lands encompassed the discovery site recognized the Ancient One as an ancestor from the time two students on their way to watch hydroplane races found his skull in the shallows of the Columbia River in July 1996. At the time of the 2017 reburial, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation board member Aaron Ashley said, "We always knew the Ancient One to be Indian ... we have oral stories that tell of our history on this land and we knew, at the moment of his discovery, that he was our relation" (Sams).

The man had been intentionally buried (later studies determined) along the river bank following his death thousands of years earlier and his remains evidently had eroded out of the bank shortly before being found. Soon known as Kennewick Man, he became a center of attention and controversy following a dramatic news conference by forensic anthropologist James Chatters, who had been called in by the Benton County coroner because of the skull's apparent age. Chatters announced that the remains were some 9,000 years old (the age was later refined to around 8,500 years) -- and that the skull and bones more closely resembled those of Europeans than Native Americans. Chatters cautioned that he was not saying Europeans reached the Americas before the ancestors of Native Americans, but his caution was overlooked in much of the subsequent media coverage, and other scientists discussed theories suggesting that the earliest inhabitants of the Americas may have come from Europe.

Skeletal measurements and archeological theories notwithstanding, Columbia Plateau tribes recognized the Ancient One as their ancestor, whose remains should be respected and promptly reburied, not viewed and studied. As Vivian Harrison, an official of the Yakama Nation, explained years later on viewing images of the remains being studied, "Really, to me, it's sad. This is a human being and his journey has been interrupted by leaving the ground" (Mapes, "Treasured Skeleton ..."). And the tribes believed they had the law on their side.

Congress had passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 in response to the practices of many scientists, collectors, and curators through the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century who dug up Native American human remains and artifacts from burial sites and displayed them in museums. NAGPRA required that some remains and artifacts in museums be repatriated to Indian tribes, and further provided that Native American human remains discovered on federal land belong to the Indian tribe with the closest cultural affiliation. Because the Ancient One was found on land under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, and in their ancestral territory, the Umatilla Tribes formally requested that the Corps repatriate the remains. The request was joined by four other area tribes -- the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Wanapum Band of Indians, and the Nez Perce Tribe. In September 1996 the Corps agreed to turn the remains over to the five tribes.

But while many scientists viewed NAGPRA as necessary human-rights legislation, others saw it as improperly giving too much authority to tribes and hampering their research, especially into Paleo-Americans, as the earliest inhabitants of the Americas are often called. Even before his public announcement, Chatters had begun contacting anthropologists and archeologists who shared this view. Seizing the opportunity to challenge NAGPRA, eight scientists, led by physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution, sued in federal court to prevent repatriation and get access to study the remains.

As it turned out Chatters, who touched off the controversy over whether the Ancient One was Native American, would eventually "change his mind about the skeleton's ancestry after working with remains of other so-called paleo-Americans from Mexico that look different but are clearly linked genetically to modern Native Americans" (Doughton, "Kennewick Man Is Ours ..."). But the eight plaintiff scientists and others continued to argue that Kennewick Man was not related to Native Americans, and those arguments prevailed in the courts.

In 1998, the remains were transferred to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle, deemed by the courts to be "the most suitable neutral place for the safekeeping of the Ancient One" ("Statement on the Repatriation ..."). To provide evidence supporting repatriation, the federal government authorized studies that were conducted at the Burke by independent scientists. Their skeletal measurements showed that the Ancient One was no more "European" than "Native American," with some features commonly found in each of those populations and the strongest morphological resemblance to populations in Polynesia. Efforts to extract DNA for genetic testing proved unsuccessful, so there was no physical evidence of the Ancient One's connection to Native Americans. Nevertheless, the government relied on oral tradition to confirm his affiliation with the local tribes, but the courts reversed that decision, holding that the oral-tradition evidence was insufficient and ruling that the plaintiff scientists could study the remains.

The plaintiffs and colleagues made three sets of visits to the Burke Museum from 2004 through 2006 to plan and conduct studies. Those studies, like the earlier ones, relied largely on measurements of the bones and reached the same conclusion: Kennewick Man was most closely related to Polynesian and other Pacific populations, with no evidence of a relationship to Native Americans. The studies included isotope analysis and more refined estimates of the age of the remains, but not DNA analysis.

In 2012, two years before publication of a book he co-edited containing the results of the research, Owsley met privately with tribal leaders, who were still seeking reburial of the Ancient One, to present the findings. He said they showed conclusively that Kennewick Man was not Native American. Indeed, citing isotopes in the bones that he said indicated consumption of large quantities of marine mammals like seals, Owsley asserted that Kennewick Man was not even from the Columbia Plateau where his remains were found: "This is a man from the coast, not a man from here" (Mapes, "Treasured Skeleton ..."). In response to pleas that the remains now be reburied, he insisted that more could be learned from further studies. Although described as respectful, the discussion did not change minds on either side, with tribal members standing by their belief that the Ancient One was an ancestor who should be reburied promptly. Ruth Jim of the Yakama Tribal Council said, "I don't disagree that the scientists want to do their job, but there should be a time limit. The only concern we have as tribal leaders is he needs to return to Mother Earth" (Mapes, "Treasured Skeleton ...").

"Bring the Ancient One Home"

When additional studies, specifically genetic analyses, did occur they conclusively refuted Owsley's assertion that Kennewick Man was not Native American and confirmed the tribal position that the Ancient One was closely related to Columbia Plateau tribes. The determinative genetic studies were made possible by dramatic advances in DNA technology since the unsuccessful attempts to obtain DNA from Kennewick Man at the turn of the century. Using that new technology, a team of geneticists from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark successfully extracted sufficient DNA from a finger bone, sequenced Kennewick Man's genome, and compared it to those of contemporary populations. The results, announced in June 2015, showed not only that the Ancient One was more closely related to Native Americans than any other modern population but also that he was more closely related to Columbia Plateau tribes than other Native American groups.

With genetic testing showing that the Ancient One was Native American, the remains were subject to NAGPRA, and the tribes could again seek repatriation. As a first step, the Corps of Engineers sought validation of the genetic analysis. This came in April 2016, when geneticists at the University of Chicago independently validated the findings of the Copenhagen team. With that the Corps officially declared Kennewick Man to be Native American.

Under NAGPRA claimant tribes still had to establish cultural affiliation with the Ancient One, but members of the state's congressional delegation were already working to ensure that the remains would be repatriated. Bills requiring the Corps to return the Ancient One to the tribes were introduced in the Senate by Senator Patty Murray (b. 1950) and in the House of Representatives by Representative Denny Heck (b. 1952). Murray and Heck were Democrats, but their legislation, initially titled the "Bring the Ancient One Home Act of 2015," received bipartisan support from both Republican and Democratic legislators, including Republican Representative Dan Newhouse (b. 1955), whose Fourth District in Central Washington included the site where the Ancient One had been found.

Murray and Newhouse worked to ensure passage of the repatriation requirement by attaching it to the high-priority Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. As approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama (b. 1961) in December 2016, the infrastructure bill included a provision requiring that the Ancient One be returned within 90 days. The Corps was to transfer the remains to the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP), which would in turn hand them over to the tribes.

Repatriation and Reburial

Two months after the bill became law, and more than 20 years after the tribes first requested the remains, repatriation finally took place on February 17, 2017. Umatilla, Yakama, Colville, Wanapum, and Nez Perce tribal officers and religious leaders met that Friday at the Burke Museum with representatives of the Corps and DAHP and museum curators. For some tribal members it was the last of many visits to the Ancient One at the museum. From the time the remains arrived at the Burke in 1998, tribal members had visited regularly, conducting ceremonies to pay their respects to their displaced ancestor and "offer our prayers and our hopes for a safe journey back to the land again," as Umatilla spokesperson Chuck Sams explained (Mapes, "Kennewick Man Officially Declared ..."). In a statement following the repatriation, the Burke stressed its "long-standing relationships with the tribes" as well as the Corps and DAHP, and said "the return of the Ancient One to the tribes is the right decision and was long overdue" ("Statement on the Repatriation ...").

On the day of the repatriation, Corps and DAHP officials carefully inventoried the remains, which included multiple vials of DNA samples in addition to the bones, and reviewed the inventory with tribal historic-preservation officers. Then came the paperwork officially transferring custody of the remains from the Corps to DAHP, followed by department officials turning the Ancient One over to the tribal representatives. With the remains finally in their possession the tribes did not delay in returning the Ancient One to the ground, reburying him less than 24 hours later. At the Burke religious leaders carefully bundled the remains and the tribal members caravanned from Seattle to Richland, where they and the remains stayed overnight.

Early on the cool, cloudy morning of February 18, the group returning from Seattle met additional tribal members and some non-Indian staff at the previously selected reburial site on the Columbia Plateau near the river along whose banks the Ancient One had originally been buried. In an effort to prevent the remains from being disturbed in the future, the site was not disclosed and the burial ceremonies were private.

"Religious leaders from each of the Tribes," all of which follow the Washat religion, "jointly conducted a ceremony ending the Ancient One's journey among the living" (Sams). While the ceremony may not have been the same as the rites held when the Ancient One was first buried by his people nearly 9,000 years earlier, tribal leaders noted that "the songs we sing are very close and have been sung throughout the Columbia Plateau for thousands of years" (Green).

Armand Minthorn, a board member and Longhouse leader of the Umatilla Tribes, was one of the first to call for the Ancient One's return in 1996 and remained active in the effort over the succeeding 20 years. With the Ancient One at last returned to the earth Minthorn said, "This is a big day and our People have come to witness and honor our ancestor ... we continue to practice our beliefs and laws as our Creator has given us since time immemorial" (Sams).


Annette Cary, "Tribes Return Ancient Kennewick Man to the Ground," Tri-City Herald, February 19, 2017 (; Sara Jean Green, "Tribes Bury Ancient Ancestor's Remains," The Seattle Times, February 20, 2017, p. B-2; Sandi Doughton, "Kennewick Man Readied for Transfer to Tribes," Ibid., February 18, 2017, p. B-1; Lynda V. Mapes, "Kennewick Man Officially Declared Native American," Ibid., April 28, 2016, p. B-1; Doughton, "Kennewick Man Is Ours, Tribes Say After DNA Results," Ibid., June 19, 2015, p. A-1; Mapes, "Treasured Skeleton Not Local, Scientist Tells Tribes;" Ibid., October 10, 2012, p. A-1; Chuck Sams, "The Ancient One Finally Laid to Rest," February 19, 2017, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation website accessed July 21, 2020 (; "Statement on the Repatriation of the Ancient One," February 20, 2017, Burke Museum website accessed October 23, 2020 (; "All Information (Except Text) for S.1979 -- Bring the Ancient One Home Act of 2015," U.S. Congress website accessed November 18, 2020 (; Morten Rasmussen, Martin Sikora, Anders Albrechtsen, et al., "The Ancestry and Affiliations of Kennewick Man," Nature, July 23, 2015 (; David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2000); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Kennewick Man (The Ancient One)" (by Kit Oldham), (accessed November 21, 2020).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You