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Army Corps Decides Kennewick Man Should Be Turned Over To Tribes

Brittney Tatchell
Smithsonian Institution -
File photo of clay facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has reached an initial determination that Kennewick Man is related to modern Native Americans.

An ancient skeleton known as Kennewick Man moved a major step forward toward reburial Wednesday. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it has accepted DNA analysis that ties the remains found in the Tri-Cities to modern Native Americans.

Kennewick Man is one of the oldest and most complete skeletons found in North America. The remains were accidentally discovered in shallow water at Columbia Park in Kennewick, Washington, by two college students attending the annual hydroplane races in 1996.

A new genetic and skeletal comparison reviewed by the Army Corps led its Northwestern Division Commander to classify the roughly 9,000-year-old human remains as Native American. That determination looks to end nearly two decades of fighting and competing claims for the bones.

Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation spokesman Chuck Sams said his people feel very happy and vindicated.

"As we have always stated, we have a strong belief that the Kennewick Man -- or as he is known among us, The Ancient One -- is from our people on the Columbia River plateau,” Sams said.

Sams was uncertain how quickly the wheels of the federal bureaucracy would turn before Kennewick Man can be reburied. He said the tribal claimants represent a coalition of the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakama, Colville and Wanapum tribes.

"We hope that this will finally come to a 20-year end so that we may be able to put our relative back in the ground," Sams said.

In the years following the recovery of the skeleton, a group of scientists fought a long battle for the right to study the ancient remains. The alternative sought by area tribes was reburial as soon as possible. The case went all the way to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the scientists won. Some of the resulting papers posited that Kennewick Man was a traveler unaffiliated with present-day local tribes.

Forensic anthropologist Jim Chatters of Applied Paleoscience in Bothell, Washington -- one of the first experts to examine the remains and a supporter of the original litigation -- said he is in accord with Wednesday’s Army Corps determination.

“I expected it would come to this point,” he said in an interview with public radio. “This is consistent with other findings we have had about the earliest American skeletons.”

The Kennewick Man remains are currently being stored at the Burke Museum in Seattle. That is where the Army Corps said they will stay while the government works with interested Columbia Basin tribes to determine the appropriate receiver.

The federal agency said in a statement that it would follow procedures outlined in the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act.

For the past several years, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has tried to accomplish through legislation what is now happening administratively. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled to consider a water bill to which the committee added a separate, previously-stalled measure to return Kennewick Man to the coalition of Columbia Basin tribes.

The press secretary for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, wrote in an email that the Senate will proceed with its Kennewick Man legislating.

"The Army Corps of Engineers' announcement is a step forward but many steps remain," press secretary Kerry Arndt wrote. "Sen. Murray’s bill is essentially on a dual track. At the end of the day, she wants to make sure the remains are returned if the ACOE’s process gets slowed down or stopped."

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.