Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bill Paves Way For Return Of 'Kennewick Man' To Northwest Tribes

Brittney Tatchell
Smithsonian Institution -
A bill in Congress has paved the way for the return of ''Kennewick Man'' to Northwest tribes for final burial.

The passage of a congressional bill that authorizes drinking and wastewater projects nationwide has Northwest tribes celebrating. An amendment to the bill means the 9,000-year-old human remains discovered near Kennewick, Washington, 20 years ago will be returned for final burial.

Twenty members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation volunteered DNA samples to prove a genetic linkage between Kennewick Man and Native Americans. Tribal Chairman Michael Marchand was one of them.

“It’s kind of amazing that science can even do that,” Marchand said. “We just had that feeling he was our family and we need to take care of him, you know.”

The amendment to repatriate the skeletal remains passed with the Water Resources Development Act of 2016. It was introduced by a pair of Washington congressmen, Republican Dan Newhouse and Democrat Denny Heck, and cosponsored by fellow Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat, and Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden.

Washington’s Democratic Sen. Patty Murray included a similar amendment in the Senate version of the bill.

This was one of the last bills to pass in Congress, which is not scheduled to reconvene until after the November election. Senate and House versions of the bill still have to be reconciled before it goes to the White House.

The five Columbia Basin Tribes involved in a long-time legal battle over the skeletal remains must agree to a final burial place. According to the amendment, repatriation has to happen within 90 days after the bill is signed into law.

Chuck Sams, communications director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, said he is "very hopeful that it will be done before February or March."

Regardless of when it happens, Sams said the event will be very significant.

“Each society has its right to determine how best to honor and put away their dead. We in the [Columbia River] plateau have been doing this for thousands of years, and placing our deceased in the ground and returning them back in the ground from whence they came," Sams said. "So, to have him refound and brought up and left out for this long has been very disconcerting to say the least.”

This week, Michael Marchand and other northwest leaders were not only in Washington, D.C., for the annual Tribal Nations Conference. Representatives from 57 Northwest tribes are in Tulalip for the annual convention of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI).

“People have heard the news and they are generally happy and they hope [Kennewick Man] gets reburied,” Marchand said.

The five tribes who have claimed ancestry to the Ancient One include the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Wanapum Band of Priest Rapids.

“I think our tribes have been pretty united and we share pretty united customs as far as burials and those types of traditions,” he said. “I think we’ve shown a willingness to try to work together and if we do have any differences put those aside and take care of this issue.”