After 20 years, Kennewick Man or the Ancient One, returns home

Ancient man laid to rest in private ceremony on Columbia Plateau

COLUMBIA PLATEAU —Uutpama Natitayt — Kennewick Man, or the Ancient One, an ancestor of the First People of the Columbia Plateau — is finally home.

More than 200 of his relatives came together at an undisclosed location on the Columbia Plateau early Feb. 18 to lay him to rest. They came from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, from the Nez Perce Tribe, from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and the Wanapum Tribe and the Yakama Nation.

Religious leaders from each of the Native Nations jointly conducted a ceremony. And then Kennewick Man’s remains were returned to the earth, just as loved ones first laid him to rest some 9,000 years ago.

The ceremony was private.

Uytpama Natitayt (sounds like “Oit pa ma na tit tite”) knew this place. The Ancient One fished for salmon, steelhead and sturgeon in the Columbia River, which he likely knew as Nch’i-Wana, or “Great River.” He hunted and harvested in the eco-diverse grasslands, savannas and shrublands of the plateau. His relatives still fish and hunt and harvest here. And they still honor, remember and respect the ancestors who gave life to the next generation and passed on the teachings before walking on.

“The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation is proud to have worked with all parties to repatriate the Ancient One to the Tribes,” Umatilla Chairman Gary Burke said in an announcement issued by the Umatilla Tribes. “We jointly believe in respecting our ancestors of our past and have fulfilled our responsibility to finally lay the Ancient One to rest.”

Umatilla Tribes Council member Armand Minthorn added, “This is a big day and our people have come to witness and honor our ancestor. We continue to practice our beliefs and laws as our Creator has given us since time immemorial.”

In a separate statement issued by his office, Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy said: “The return of our ancestor to Mother Earth is a blessing for all Yakama people. The Ancient One (also known as the ‘Kennewick Man’) may now finally find peace, and we, his relatives, will equally feel content knowing that this work has been completed on his behalf. For more than two decades we have fought on behalf of our ancestors. The unity of the Native people during our collective efforts to bring the Ancient One home is a glimpse of how life once was, when we were all one people.”

Uytpama Natitayt’s journey to this day was a long one. Two men inadvertently found Kennewick Man’s remains, which had been exposed by erosion, on the shores of the Columbia River in 1996. The Plateau Tribes believed that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, would ensure the Ancient One would be quickly returned for reburial. Court challenges delayed that return.

In the ensuing years, Uytpama Natitayt was subjected to anthropological study, and his remains were handled and measured and sampled. Kennewick Man was determined to be 8,400 to 8,690 years old, according to the Burke Museum. Some questioned his origin and his identity. But his relatives knew who he was and never ceased in their efforts to have him returned home.

Modern genetic science proved Kennewick Man’s relatives right—that he was indeed from the Plateau and an ancestor of today’s indigenous Plateau peoples. “We always knew the Ancient One to be Indian,” Umatilla Tribes Council member Aaron Ashley said in the announcement. “We have oral stories that tell of our history on this land and we knew, at the moment of his discovery, that he was our relation.”

On December 10, Congress approved a bill requiring the Washington State Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation to return Uytpama Natitayt’s remains to his relatives at the Colville, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama, and Wanapum nations. On February 17, representatives of the Plateau Tribes met at the Burke Museum in Seattle, where the remains had been held. Representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation, and curators of the Burke Museum, formally returned Uytpama Natitayt’s remains to his people.

While the Ancient One’s return was being argued in the courts and in Congress, the state’s historic preservation office was responsible for his remains. At the ceremony formally returning Kennewick Man to his relatives, state historic preservation officer Allyson Brooks apologized for the trauma caused by the separation.

“On behalf of Gov. Jay Inslee and the State of Washington, it is my honor today to pass your relative, the Ancient One, back to you so you can have your family member again like you should have all along,” Brooks said. “I have been your state historic preservation officer for 18 years and this is one of my proudest moments, and I apologize to all of you for the trauma that this has caused for the last 20 years, and I apologize to the Ancient One for the trauma he has gone through for the past 20 years.”

She said her hope for the Ancient One “is that he go home by the Columbia River … so he can be at peace.”

To the Ancient One, she said, “You did wake me up at nights, so I’ll be really happy if I can sleep again.” To his relatives, she said, “I want to congratulate you for never, ever, ever giving up on your family member.”

Who was Uytpama Natitayt?

Uytpama Natitayt received his name from the Plateau Tribes; “Uytpama Natitayt” means “Ancient One,” according to Chuck Sams, the Umatilla Tribes’ communications director.

If alive today, Uytpama Natitayt might be a poster boy for the health benefits of an Omega 3-rich diet.

According to an anthropological report on the National Park Service website, Kennewick Man stood about 5 feet 9 inches, and his diet consisted mostly of fish. He was “in excellent shape for a man of his age.” He was well-muscled and had arms similar to those of “modern weight lifters or construction laborers.” Another anthropologist who studied his remains told National Public Radio that the Ancient One’s right arm resembled that of a professional baseball pitcher. The NPR writer was compelled to refer to Uytpama Natitayt as “beefcake.”

Uytpama Natitayt was definitely buff. At one point in his life, when he was a teenager, he was injured in an accident or conflict; he suffered two broken ribs and a broken right arm, and a projectile point was embedded in his pelvis. Kennewick Man completely recovered from his injuries.

Uytpama Natitayt passed away when he was 45 to 50 years old, possibly from a frontal bone injury. Nearly nine millennia after his passing, he returned to show the world that The People are indeed indigenous to this land, that their oral histories are not myths but factual record.

His work done, Uytpama Natitayt rests again.

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