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Congressman Denny Heck

Representing the 10th District of Washington

Learning your Ancient One history: Colville tribal perspectives

Feb 23, 2017
In The News


Coming to the Tribune, I admittedly did not realize my own tribal perspective on the Ancient One.

I came to understand that calling him “Kennewick Man” over and over again ruffled the feathers of my fellow tribal members.

It's like Redskins in the sense that it was a name branded by non-Indians; but it, instead, wasn't based on the likeness of our image. The remains, thanks to a pair of scientists, took on depictions of non-Indian cultures who could have migrated here first, they said.

That, alone, is offensive to American Indians, the first people.

"Kennewick wasn't anywhere around," tribal elder Adeline Fredin told me. "He's the Ancient One. There was nothing out there: no fences, no telephone posts, whatever, no Kennewick."

Here were some more story-lines I learned that weren't shared in previous articles.


Colville Business Councilman John Sirois had to travel to Central Washington University in 2012 to see Dr. Douglas Owsley, the lead scientist from the Smithsonian Institute, for the first time in-person.

Owsley, who published a book on the Ancient One in 2014 — and tied his ancestry to possible Japanese and Polynesian roots — was a controversial figure for tribes.

"We finally got to meet him last year when I was on council," Sirois said following the 2015 press conference which announced a stronger link for the bones to Colville tribal DNA samples. "We had the elected leaders from all the area elected tribes from down the Columbia River. It was the first meeting that he met with tribes. We tried to explain to him our feelings on the matter."

Considering Owsley had been the lead figure for nearly two decades, this frustrated the Colvilles.

CBC member Michael Finley even tried to drop in on Owsley while on delegation in Washington, D.C.

"Young, naive me tried to get a meeting with Owsley," he recalled. "He  (Owsley) took my meeting. I convinced him to come out to Washington to follow up here to meet with the tribes. He needed to come give the results to them. He admitted he was scared to do it because of the friction. 'I don't know what kind of response I'm going to get.' He did it, which I have to give respect for that. 

"He's just been very standoffish throughout this whole thing, using his name and his credentials to try to dictate where it goes."

Adeline Fredin, who represented the tribe upon the discovery, had her own feelings about Owsley, who completed a facial reconstruction which resembled a bearded man that strikingly resembled an old Ainu photo. This followed Chatters' facial reconstruction, which was likened to Star Trek Capt. Jean Luc Picard.

"It's not too difficult to arrange the mold to satisfy yourself," Fredin said. "Chatters was not a recognized archaeologist in his field. It just struck me that he would do that. I don't know if I could ever have the backbone to go ahead and do something like that. 

"And Owsley was no different. He was a man that was moving up in his field, and he was getting there. And I don't know what steps he had to take to get where he was when I met him. When I met him I realized that he was also a man that wanted to be recognized."


Though the Ancient One was discovered in 1996, the claimant tribes who fought for the remains didn't unify for repatriations until 2004-05, according to Colville tribal repatriation specialist Jackie Cook.

"We unified just so we don't have that problem," Cook said, referring to the controversy regarding the Ancient One.

The claimant tribes banded together for the Ancient One, utilizing the Native American Graves Protection Act of 1990 to seek the return of the remains, which were radiocarbon dated at 8,400 years old.

Upon the inadvertent discovery, NAGPRA had just started becoming effective, Cook recalled.

"Though NAGPRA was about five or six years old, the regulations were only out maybe a year," she said. "So a lot of things fell through the cracks because people hadn't been doing NAGPRA and following the regulations. There had never been a challenge like (the Ancient One)."


Just like having any other ancestor dug up and studied, the Colville Tribes were disgusted that the remains were allowed to be study, according to tribal History & Archaeology program manager Guy Moura.

The tribes fought hard for the return, only to be denied in federal court. Then the remains were fair game for scientific research.

"We went through this horrible period of when they were going to do these studies," he recalled.

"Being in limbo was really frustrating," tribal repatriation specialist Jackie Cook said. "We couldn’t begin to move forward, move sideways, we couldn’t do anything. We talked about thinking outside the box to get him reburied."

The Colvilles waited nearly a decade before asking about an update.

"It was probably around 2007, 08, in there, we started asking the question: 'Where are the results? It's been this long,'" Cook recalled. 


After the Army Corps of Engineers claimed the Ancient One's remains — and the claimant tribes subsequently united under NAGPRA — it seemed hopeful that a repatriation would have occurred around October of 1996.

After a group of eight researchers successfully sued for the remains to be studied — because they could not be determined to be 'Native American' — the relationship with the Colville Tribe and Army Corps began to deteriorate.

The Colvilles caught wind through a 2011 Seattle Times article that researcher Thomas Stafford was taking the Ancient One's DNA to Denmark.

"Because we had no standing with the Corps, they hadn't let us know" of the potential to participate in the study, tribal repatriation specialist Jackie Cook recalled. "We found out and heard these rumors that the DNA was coming back as Native American. (The Army Corps) chose not to share that information.

"So we just started trying to get to Eske. He came and he was on his way to Montana to kind of finish up with the Ansic child and made a detailed tour through Yakama and met with tribes in early 2014. "

"And that’s when everything got into high gear again," Colville tribal History & Archaeology program manager Guy Moura said. "Jackie went right to the source."

Had the Army Corps of Engineers requested samples from the tribes, "I think it would have been a totally different story," Moura said.


The CBC met with Danish scientist Eske Willerslev, who explained that the only samples scientists had were South American and Northern Canadian — nothing from American Indian tribes.

"(Eske) showed the map with contemporary DNA and there was this big void and we just filled it with this cultural duty to the Ancient One," tribal repatriation specialist Jackie Cook said. 

This was enough, initially, to convince most of the tribes, according to then CBC member John Sirois.

"Everyone of [the tribes] stepped up and said, 'We'll put forth our DNA, we want to prove once and for all; to finally put that question to rest,'" Sirois recalls. "When it finally came and the people from Denmark came a lot of them changed their minds."

That wasn't the case in Colville, which caused tension, according to Finley.

"When I met with the other chairs of the tribes, they said it was a no-go," he recalled. "I said it looks like we’re gonna move forward and asked them if it would compromise our relationship. I took it back to council and we approved it."

"Mike Finley was fearless in this," Cook said.

Finley recalled putting the DNA inquiry out to the people, which saw a turnout of 22. He recalled some strong opinions for DNA sampling from some.

"Some of the elders said it’s not the council’s choice; if they want to give their own blood they can," he said. "I guess the other tribes are taking a different approach. ... Everybody kind of agreed it was the right thing to do. It came to the time where we said, 'Let’s fight fire with fire.' It’s a shame we have to use science to prove what we know."

Ultimately, it was the confidentiality provided in the Denmark study that led Colville to sponsor the DNA samples as a government, according to Sirois.

"They said the samples would never be used again, would be held in extreme confidential manner," he recalled, "because a lot of the different tribes were worried that. What scared them was going to be somehow using that information. They made sure that as a different sovereign nation they would not allow that information to be brought back to the U.S. to use in some way."

There was a perception that Colville did the DNA samples to get credit for the return, according to Finley.

"We didn't do this to get credit," he said. "I knew it would give us the ammunition we needed to get him back in the ground. The rest is history. We can't take back what we did. I think we did the right thing."


Following a CBC resolution to conduct DNA testing, Colville Tribal History & Archaeology worked with local Father Jake Morton to utilize the annexes of churches for DNA saliva swabbing. 

"We went to all the district and wanted to have a neutral area so people could feel comfortable if they wanted to be semi-anonymous," Jackie Cook, the tribes' repatriation specialist said. "That worked out very well. Every sample had release forms that every volunteer knew what they signed, so they knew exactly what the study would be and the restrictions on their samples. 

"They can’t be used for anything but the comparison to the Ancient One."


In 2005, tribal member Brian Gunn, an attorney working in Washington, D.C. worked on a NAGPRA amendment that would have ensured the Ancient One situation wouldn't happen again.

"That provision didn't move very far due to the opposition from anthropologists," he recalled. "About five years ago, when Mike Finley was chairman (of the Colville Business Council), we approached Doc Hastings about when the scientists' written report would be coming out.

"Most recently, after the DNA results came back, I worked with Sen. Patty Murray's and Rep. Denny Heck's and Rep. Dan Newhouse's offices on the transfer language."

The biggest moment of drama, Gunn said, "was when we were negotiating the language for inclusion in the House Water Infrastructure Bill (which was later signed by former President Barack Obama in December of 2016).

"I remember I was at SeaTac airport working on coming up with the bill language over the phone with Rep. Newhouse's and Heck's offices under a very tight time-frame. We weren't sure that it would work out, but luckily it did."

CBC chairman Michael Marchand applauded Gunn's role in the return.

"He did most of the legislative work," he said.


For the CBC leaders and officials who worked on the case of the Ancient One, there's an important lesson for all.

"I just hope that our membership sees how big of a deal it is," Finley said. "It's literally rewriting history. Ever since they came out with their findings, it changed how teachers were teaching our kids at school."

Finley recalls his niece being told by a teacher that Native Americans weren't the first and Kennewick Man was the evidence.

"This is going to rewrite it," he said. "I just hope people realize Colvilles were in the forefront of this."

"That tie," Sirois said. "That puts to rest any speculation that folks out there that want to discredit the indigenous peoples' tie to this land. ... It's going to be looked back upon as something that reaffirms that relationship, and should quell and stop a lot of the really superfluous ideas of 'Native American' and what that term is and how that relates to us on that land that we've been tied.

"I'm really hopeful that this scientific discovery opens up peoples' eyes and minds and the validity of what our stories mean to people," he added. "Whether it's a traditional knowledge around the cultural resources we hold dear. The lessons, those teachings, it's disheartening to see science finally catch up and prove what we've been trying to tell them for so many ages. I hope that this can be a new chapter for the scientific community, archaeological community, to really look at the traditional knowledge in a different light and give it the respect and validity that it needs."

Tribal repatriation specialist Jackie Cook said the impact of the Ancient One could lead to a future that sees tribes repatriate their ancestors much quicker than the near 21-year wait it had to experience with the Ancient One.

"Well, what happens now is the tribes have to come back together and build a strategy both legally and technically," she said. "How we consult with the (Corps) about how we move forward. I think we have to look into the documents for the past and see where there were problems with those documents and really filling in the seven lines of NAGPRA you can use to demonstrate cultural affiliation. Biological was one of them; we’ve got that one covered. 

"This validates our oral traditions. You heard that over and over again. And Eske (Willerslev) said that too. Every time, the oral traditions always validates."

CBC chairman Michael Marchand said it's "ironic that science was used to prove our case."