The threads of history, culture and ancestry form a timeless and unbreakable weave in Native American life. The elders who came before us are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. Their wisdom, knowledge and beliefs guide and center us, forming the fabric upon which we live our modern lives.
That is why the prompt return of The Ancient One is so important to our people.
Sometimes called the “Kennewick Man,” our ancestor was found in 1996 near Kennewick, Washington along the Colombia River. He is 9,000 years old. But fully twenty-years after his discovery, we remain unable to properly bury him.
Instead, The Ancient One was subject to a long and costly legal battle between his Native descendants and those who wished to control his remains for scientific study.
The court case lasted for eight years and consumed over $5 million in taxpayer funds before being decided by a federal court in San Francisco on behalf of the scientists.
The scientists mistakenly argued that The Ancient One was of Pacific Islander ancestry, and, as a result, prevented The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) from being enforced. NAGPRA requires human remains removed from Native homelands be returned to the lineal descendants.
Since that ruling, however, The Ancient One’s Native American ancestry has been conclusively established, confirming what we have known and argued.
DNA analysis performed by an independent team of researchers at Stanford University and the University of Copenhagen in 2015, and subsequently confirmed by another group of scientists from the University of Chicago in 2016, proved The Ancient One is related to modern-day tribes of the Pacific Northwest.
He is a member of our family.
We don’t expect everyone to understand the deep honor and respect we bestow upon our 9,000 year old ancestor and the spiritual relationships we maintain with our ancestors. . But we believe everyone can understand that our Ancient One deserves a prompt and respectful burial just like any beloved family member.
Unfortunately, we’ve learned through two decades of painful experience that a single person can sue, preventing NAGPRA from being enforced and mire this case in the courts almost indefinitely. There is no guarantee the law will prevail and that is why we need Congress to act.
Introduced by Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Bring the Ancient One Home Act has bipartisan and bicameral support ranging from Rep. Don Young (R-AK) to Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID). The bill simply enforces current law and calls upon the Army Corps of Engineers, who have legal custody of the Ancient One, to facilitate his immediate return to his native family and to complete a process twenty years overdue.
Importantly, the Army Corps agrees with the scientific consensus.
Brig. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon, commander of the Corps’ Northwestern Division, said, "I am confident that our review and analysis of new skeletal, statistical and genetic evidence have convincingly led to a Native American Determination.”
After decades of delay, it is past time that the Ancient One is returned to his Native American family.
The Bring the Ancient One Home Act is a unique opportunity for Congress to enforce existing law, correct the mistakes of the past twenty years and weave an important thread of Native American history back into our modern lives.
Rosita Kaa háni Worl, Ph.D., is the president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute and former chair of the NAGPRA Review Committee.