Written by Peter Lape
At a public ceremony at the UW Intellectual House on May 12, 2017, tribal and US political leaders spoke to mark the end of the long journey of the Ancient One. These ancestral human remains (also known as Kennewick Man) were discovered on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington in 1996. The bones soon became the center of a conflict between a group of anthropologists who sued to prevent his repatriation, the Army Corps of Engineers, who owned the land where he was discovered and were in favor of repatriation, and five Native American tribes who wanted him returned for reburial. The plaintiff scientists won the case in 2004, preventing repatriation and allowing study of the bones. During the trial and post-trial study period, the Burke Museum was designated to provide storage of the remains.
DNA evidence linking the Ancient One to current Northwest Tribes ultimately spurred the passage of a 2016 bill by the US Congress that transferred control of the remains to the State of Washington. The State immediately conveyed them to the five claimant tribes and the remains were reburied at a private ceremony in an undisclosed location in February 2017.
As a UW Anthropology faculty member and Curator of Archaeology at the Burke Museum, l was assigned the task of overseeing the Ancient One’s storage and care at the Burke. Like many UW archaeologists, I was strongly in favor of repatriation and have worked hard to carry on the traditions of Burke leadership in repatriation action begun by my Burke colleagues James Nason and Julie Stein. This ethical position was an uncomfortable fit with our role in the Ancient One case. For nearly 20 years, the Burke staff provided secure and respectful storage of the remains, but also had to provide access to the visiting plaintiff scientists when they won their court battle, as well as to tribal religious leaders who needed to conduct ceremonies. As a public institution, the Burke also has an obligation to K-12 students and the public as a reliable source of information about the Ancient One. I am happy to see the Ancient One’s journey come to an end. Along with my colleagues at the Burke, I look forward to focusing energies on new productive and positive collaborations.