How should Ancient One’s story end?

The epic saga of the skeleton known as the Ancient One (by Native Americans) and Kennewick Man (by scientists) has taken a wild turn.

 

The story’s beginning is now near myth: In 1996, human remains were accidentally discovered along the Columbia River, near Kennewick, Wash. Scientists determined the remains to be a 9,300-year-old man, calling the find “the most important human skeleton ever found in North America.”

A coalition of related tribes in the Northwest, however, insisted “The Ancient One” was an ancestor who should be returned for respectful reburial under federal law. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accepted the tribes’ claim, eight scientists sued. A long court battle ended in 2004, when a federal judge ruled in favor of the scientists.

In 2014, this story appeared to have reached its end when 48 scholars published a 680-page tome on the skeleton. Significantly, the researchers suggested that Kennewick Man had no connections to any living populations. Based on the shape of his skull and skeletal structure, they deduced his closest living relatives are the Moriori, who live on an archipelago 420 miles southeast of New Zealand, and the Ainu of Japan.

These scientific conclusions seemed to be aligned with the court’s conclusion that Kennewick Man should not be considered “Native American.” The Army Corps had originally inferred that the 9,300-year-old individual was Native American because he predated European arrival, and so should be returned under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The judge, however, focused on NAG-PRA’s definition of “Native American”: “of, or relating to a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States.” The use of the present tense “is” led the judge to conclude that Congress intentionally restricted NAGPRA to human remains that “bear some relationship to a presently existing tribe, people, or culture to be considered Native American.” Since he felt the remains do not bear a relationship to a presently existing tribe, then they were not legally those of a “Native American” and thus not subject to NAGPRA.

But then last year, it turned out there was still a few more chapters in the Ancient One’s story. An article in the journal Nature proved that Kennewick Man is a genetic ancestor of today’s Native Americans. DNA provided a powerful line of evidence, affirming the oral traditions of the Umatilla, Yakima, Nez Perce, Wanapum, and Colville tribes who claim a deep ancestry to the region. The geneticists even found that one of the most closely related tribes to the Ancient One includes the Colville, situated just 200 miles from where the skeleton was unearthed.

The legal effect of these findings recently played out. On April 26, Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, pushed her short bill — Bring the Ancient One Home Act — through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Then, two days later, the Army Corps announced that, with this new genetic evidence, the skeleton is in fact related to modern Native American tribes, which opens the door again to its return through NAGPRA.

It is the right thing to honor the wishes of the Ancient One’s descendants, and allow them to rebury their ancestors with respect and dignity. However, a law directed at one set of remains offers a small bandage to a deep hemorrhage; it is just a matter of time before another ancient skeleton is found. And then we will again suffer through years of unnecessary antagonism between Native Americans and archaeologists, who have far more to gain by working together than by fighting each other.

The best way to avoid future conflicts is to allow NAGPRA to do its work. This would require the smallest of amendments to the law — simply adding two words, “or was,” to NAGPRA’s definition of Native American. With the broad support of both scientific organizations and tribes, several times Congress has come close, but always failed, to making this necessary adjustment.

The story of the Ancient One appears close to a conclusion. But until Congress fixes NAGPRA, the repatriation wars will continue without end.


 

Chip Colwell is senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and author of the upcoming “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture” (University of Chicago Press).
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