Much has changed since the Kennewick Man, or Ancient One lived in the Columbia Plateau some 9,000 years ago. But he would find a lot that is familiar.
He would recognize the sounds of children—his descendants—playing on the banks of the river, the ancestors knew as Nch’i-Wana, or “Great River.” He would recognize the salmon, steelhead and sturgeon that still feed his relatives. He would be pleased to see how his relatives give thanks for the river’s gifts, how they still care for, hunt and harvest in the eco-diverse grasslands, savannas, and shrublands of the plateau.
And soon, perhaps in about three months, another familiar scene will take place. The Ancient One’s relatives will once again gather, just as they did for him 9,000 years ago when he was first laid to rest. Leaders of the Waashat religion will conduct a ceremony. Leaders of the Native Nations to which he has ties will be there. There will be songs—ancient songs, ancestral songs. He will be called by a name in his language—not Kennewick Man, but Uytpama Natitayt, a name that means “Ancient One,” and he will be reburied at a site that Chuck Sams, a spokesman for the Umatilla Tribes, described as undisclosed and well protected.
Uytpama Natitayt’s remains will again be at rest.
In the 20 years since Uytpama Natitayt (sounds like “Oit pa ma na tit tite,” according to Sams), was revealed at his original burial site on the Columbia River, he was subjected to anthropological study. His remains were handled and measured and sampled. Some questioned his indigeneity and his identity. But his relatives knew who he was and never ceased in their efforts to have him returned home.
In the end, modern genetic science proved Uytpama Natitayt’s relatives right—that he was indeed from the Plateau and an ancestor of today’s indigenous Plateau peoples.
Uytpama Natitayt “vindicates our stories,” said Sams, Walla Walla/Cayuse. “Our stories are not myths. We know who our people are. We know where we laid our people to rest.”
On December 10, Congress approved a bill that requires the Washington State Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation to return Kennewick Man’s remains to his relatives at the Colville, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama, and Wanapum nations.
The bill, sent to President Barack Obama for his signature, makes the return immediate, bypassing the comparatively lengthy NAGPRA process.
Once signed into law, Uytpama Natitayt’s remains will be transferred from the Burke Museum—the state’s museum of natural history and culture where the remains are stored—to the Native Nations to which he has family ties. His relatives “will then place him at rest at an undisclosed location,” Sams said.
The transfer must take place within 90 days after the president signs the bill into law. But Sams said the transfer and reburial could take place “within a matter of weeks.” And rather than Uytpama Natitayt’s remains being transferred by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the state, and the state transferring the remains to the Native Nations, the transfer could take place at the Burke Museum, Sams said.
To recap: Two men found Uytpama Natitayt’s remains on July 28, 1996, about 10 feet off shore at Columbia Park in Kennewick, on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. Anthropologists determined Uytpama Natitayt to be nearly 9,000 years old. Native Nations of the Columbia Plateau wanted him returned for reburial, but a court allowed scientists to study Uytpama Natitayt in order to determine his origin. In 2013, genetics experts, using new DNA techniques, determined that Uytpama Natitayt is most closely connected by DNA to the Native people of the Plateau, clearing the way for the Army Corps of Engineers to repatriate him through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. Federal legislation was introduced to speed Uytpama Natitayt’s return.
Here’s what officials said after Congress’ vote:
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington: “This victory would not have been possible without the determination, collaboration, and leadership of the claimant Tribes of the Columbia River Plateau, who impressed upon me just how much it meant to them for Congress to end decades of debate and to give them the opportunity to give their [ancestor] a proper burial and a final resting place.”
Rep. Denny Heck, D-Washington: “For two decades, the Native peoples of the Columbia River Basin have strived to rebury their ancestor. The [bill] honors the rights and traditions of these Tribes. We are close to finally returning the Ancient One home.”
Rep. Dan Newhouse, D-Washington: “Two decades after his discovery, it is finally time to return the [Ancient One’s] remains to the Columbia Basin Tribes where he belongs. I was pleased to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate on this bipartisan effort to repatriate the Ancient One.”
JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation: “We come from this land and when we pass, we return to this land, as our relative the Ancient One did more than 9,000 year ago. Now with the help from our friends in Congress, he will be returned so that he may finally rest. I, and many others, wish this fight had not taken 20 years, as this has been a long and tumultuous journey. This is the culmination of so many individuals work including some of our relatives who have passed on and returned to our Mother Earth. As they, along with the Ancient One rejoice in spirit, we humbly give thanks to our Creator that this day has come to pass. We respectfully await the work that is before us in the fulfillment of our way of life, and the return of our relative so that he may peacefully rest.”
Aaron Ashley, Umatilla Tribes board member and chairman of the Cultural Resources Committee: “Thanks to the support of almost the entire Pacific Northwest [congressional] delegation, it now looks like the Ancient One will soon return home. When he does, we will both mourn and rejoice as he is finally laid to rest with our ancestors. After a very long time, this is a hopeful moment for our people.”
Armand Minthorn, Umatilla Tribes board member: “Our ancestor has been denied his right to a proper burial for 20 years. We are glad for this long overdue decision. Our efforts will not cease until he returns to his people once and for always. We will rest when he can rest.”
A report by the National Park Service Archeology Program gives a glimpse of Uytpama Natitayt and his life.