Over 9,000 Years Later, Kennewick Man Will Be Given a Native American Burial

Five Native American nations will join together to bury his remains

Kennewick Man
Five tribes fought for 20 years to have Kennewick Man recognized as Native American. Brittney Tatchell, Smithsonian Institution

He’s been called “the most important human skeleton ever found in North America.” Known as Kennewick Man, the 9,000-year-old Paleoamerican was unearthed in 1996 in the city of Kennewick, Washington. But the discovery was more than a thrilling moment for archaeologists—it sparked a legal battle that lasted more than two decades. Now, reports Nicholas K. Geranios for the Associated Press, Kennewick Man’s saga will finally come to an end with a Native American burial.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has at last declared that Kennewick Man is related to modern Native Americans, writes Geranios, a statement that opens the remains to be claimed and eventually buried under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The law requires museums that receive federal funds and hold Native American remains to come to an agreement with Native American nations about how to repatriate them. Once tests confirm the affiliation of the remains, the law allows for the Native American nations to determine how to dispose of them. And that’s just what they intend to do. 

When the skeleton of the Paleoamerican was found, it was heralded as a priceless glimpse into the past. The sheer age of the largely intact skeleton made it a coveted artifact for scientists, who hoped to use it to identify the origin of early Americans' migration. But the first scientists that studied the remains described a “lack of Native American characteristics” in the skeleton, sparking a debate over its origins that's raged ever since.

The skeleton was found on federal land, so it technically fell under U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' control. But five Native American nations claimed that the "Ancient One” was in fact Native American and should be repatriated under NAGPRA. This assertion was controversial until a 2015 study showed that Kennewick Man was in fact Native American. Though the DNA evidence from in this study didn't link him to a particular nation, it showed that his genome was more closely related to modern Native Americans than any other modern human in existence.

As Ben Guarino reports for The Washington Postthat new information overrode the results of a lengthy legal battle between the Yakama, Wanapum, Umatilla, Colville and Nez Perce nations who claimed ownership of the skeleton and the scientists who argued that they should be able to study it.

In 2004, a San Francisco federal appeals court sided with researchers, citing previous analyses that showed Kennewick Man was not Native American, writes Guarino. But the 2015 DNA analysis blasted the debate open once more, and when University of Chicago scientists independently validated the analysis this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to acknowledge that Kennewick Man is in fact related to Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.

Now that the Ancient One has been proven to be Native American, writes Lynda V. Mapes for The Seattle Times, the five groups who fought so hard to reclaim him will join together to bury him. While they work to determine where and how to inter Kennewick Man, the skeleton will remain at the Burke Museum in Seattle, writes Mapes. In an FAQ about Kennewick Man, the museum notes that tribal community representatives conduct “authorized ceremonial activity” at the museum.

Throughout the long battle, Native American leaders never doubted Kennewick Man’s connection to their people. Just one year after Kennewick Man was unearthed, Armand Minthorn, an Umatilla trustee and religious leader, told Archaeology’s Andrew Slayman: “If this individual is truly over 9,000 years old, that only substantiates our belief that he is Native American. From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time….We already know our history.”

Chuck Sams, an Umatilla spokesperson, echos that sentiment. He tells Mapes that “[Kennewick Man] has been displaced, and we continue to offer our prayers and our hopes for a safe journey back to the land again.”

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