NANEUM — Wind sweeps across this lonely stretch of sagebrush, carrying songs and prayers of 10 tribes gathered to lay ancestral remains to rest.
The tribes helped bless the bones of 57 individuals wrapped in white cotton muslin tied with cotton string, put away with cedar boughs and tule mats within a hand-dug grave.
Afterward, elder Avery Cleveland of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation knelt to burn tobacco on the covered grave, sending its smoke and a horse song on the rising wind.
The love and care paid to these remains, blessed and returned to earth, is what tribal leaders say they want to give Kennewick Man. But almost two decades after one of the oldest and most intact ancient skeletons ever found in North America was accidentally discovered, Kennewick Man — more than 9,500 years old — still is in limbo.
That could be about to change.
Scientists in Copenhagen are doing tests using new methods that could extract some of the skeleton’s DNA, perhaps answering the question of the ancient man’s ancestry.
Tribes that want the skeleton reburied say they will try again within a year to change federal law to repatriate ancient remains, including Kennewick Man’s. And a book that details the findings from years of studying the skeleton should be out after years of waiting.
The research has urgent relevance. The case for reburial that the tribes lost in court still could be reopened and, depending on findings that emerge, could have a very different outcome, including repatriation of the bones to the tribes, said Gail Celmer, regional archaeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwest Division in Portland.
Scientists oppose reburial, saying there’s so much more to be learned about Kennewick Man.
At the heart of the matter is whether the remains can be determined to be of Native American origin, as the tribes insist. If so, federal law requires that the bones be returned for reburial by tribes that claim them.
A federal appeals panel in 2004 found the bones too old, and the context of their find too void of archaeological clues, to assign membership — genetically or culturally — to any modern tribe.
“If there is information ... that indicates he may be Native American, it might cause us to reopen the analysis,” the panel wrote.
The Yakama, Colville, Nez Perce, Wanapum and Umatilla tribes fought in court for reburial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“We know he will come home to us someday,” said Rex Buck, spiritual leader of the Wanapum tribe. “We never give up.”
The tribes have continued to press their case with the Corps, which controls access to the skeleton because it was found on Corps property.
Two boys wading in the shallows of the Columbia River in 1996 stumbled upon the skeleton, emerging from the banks near Kennewick, and called the police.
Tribes have fought for repatriation from just about every angle.
“We have looked at cemetery laws. We have looked at it as an archaeological collection,” Celmer said. “We have talked about underground curation.
“I am not sure we could guarantee that we could keep it stable or protected, but it is a novel idea.”
Last fall, Buck invited Doug Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History who led the fight in court to study the skeleton, to the Northwest. He did it, Buck said, to hear what Owsley had to say about his research on Kennewick Man so far, and to ask Owsley for his help in getting Kennewick Man back.
Owsley made no such commitment that day. But he made headlines when he declared Kennewick Man not only isn’t Native American, but that he’s not from the mid-Columbia.
Residue in Kennewick Man’s bones showed he ate a lot of food from the marine environment, especially seals, Owsley said in a private gathering with tribal members at Central Washington University.
“They are not what you would expect for someone from the Columbia Valley,” he said of isotopes detected in the remains. “You would have to eat salmon 24 hours a day and you would not reach these values.
“This is a man from the coast. Not a man from here. I think he is a coastal man.”
Buck told Owsley that while he appreciated the presentation, it lacked a larger picture of how tribal members live.
Lamprey eel could have provided the same types of nutrients, Buck noted.
“I hope you would think about some of those things too, and add that to your equation,” he said.
It was a gentle reminder of a very different mid-Columbia, teeming with animal life as recently as 200 years ago, let alone during the time of Kennewick Man.
When Lewis and Clark explored portions of the Columbia and Snake rivers in 1805 and 1806, they remarked in their journals on their amazement at the multitude of animals they saw, including marine mammals.
Seals and sea lions — not blocked by dams, as they are today — once cruised almost 200 miles upriver, all the way to what Lewis and Clark called the Great Falls of the Columbia: Celilo Falls.
Salmon were so plentiful that settlers later harvested them by the truckload to fertilize cleared land for farming. With 11 runs of salmon pushed to the brink of extinction by eight dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers, today it is easy to forget the abundance of salmon that once fed tribes from the saltwater coast to the inland-most reaches of the Columbia watershed, said Bill McMillan, who is researching the historic and prehistoric Columbia River Basin ecosystem for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries.