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Kennewick Man's Reluctant Custodian Will Be Glad To Give Up The Job

The man who watches over the ancient bones of Kennewick Man will soon return them to five Northwest tribes — and he’s happy about that.

“I’ll be relieved to not have this job to take care of these bones that I didn’t think should be here in the first place,” said Professor Peter Lape of Seattle’s Burke Museum.

These 9,000-year-old bones have been kept in secret, for nearly two decades, at the museum. Now the Burke, like many institutions, is in the bureaucratic process of returning the collected remains of the Northwest tribes.

Lape has seen first-hand the pain when members of the tribes come to pay their respects to the Ancient One, their name for Kennewick Man. Tribal leaders have said it’s hurtful and bad for the living for their ancestor’s human remains not to be at rest in the earth.

They hold ceremonies, which Lape won’t describe. But he will say this:

“There is definitely a sadness,” Lape said. “Every time they come — there’s a deep feeling of sadness. The ceremonies are tough to go through because of that feeling of sadness.”

The remains are kept in a room deep inside the museum's belly. They are not for public viewing, so Lape described what it looks like:

“The remains are stored in a series of cabinets,” he said. “Inside those cabinets, they are inside these really specially made archival boxes — with these with little cushions for each bone.”

Lape and his staff have also had to watch over the bones carefully when scientists come to visit the Burke. A group of scientists fought a legal battle for 10 years to study the Kennewick Man.

“Some of them pulled me aside and sort of put a lot of pressure on me to open up other Burke human remains collections for their research,” Lape said.

But Lape said that wasn’t something he could do.

“Our position is that if you get permission of the descendant tribes, then, that’s fine,” he said. “But we don’t actually make the call as to whether remains are accessible for research to outside researchers.”

That puts Lape between the two groups. The holder of the bones.

“It’s been sometimes an uncomfortable position sort of in the middle,” he said.

Another part of Lape’s job is to teach the public about Kennewick Man, and the other tribal remains the Burke holds.

Once a year he hosts an open house. He’s been surprised at the number of people who don’t understand what we would now call Kennewick Man’s ethnicity.

“Even to this day, a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Well, isn’t he a white guy?’” Lape said.

That’s a misconception from early news stories of the bones. Scientific tests have proven that Kennewick Man’s DNA is most closely related to present-day Northwest tribes.

When Lape teaches his anthropology classes, Kennewick Man comes up because it’s one of the most studied skeletons in the world.

“Oftentimes the students have never heard of this case,” Late said. “Some of my students now were 2-years-old when these remains were first discovered, which is hard for me to believe. But it’s been such a long time.”

Lape said one of the most important lessons he can teach about Kennewick Man is that anthropologists and archaeologists must show empathy for how their research affects people living today.

KUOW’s John O'Brien contributed to this report.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.