Ancient 'Kennewick Man' remains returned to Columbia River tribes

Native American tribes in Washington State are celebrating after the U.S. Congress passed legislation to turn over ancient Indigenous human remains.

U.S. Congress has passed legislation that will return 8,500-year-old remains home to Kennewick, Wash.

Clay reconstruction of Kennewick Man, an Indigenous man who lived over 9,000 years ago. (Brittney Tatchell/Smithsonian Institution)

Native American tribes in Washington State are celebrating after the U.S. Congress passed legislation to turn over ancient Indigenous human remains.

The remains, known as "Kennewick Man", were found along the banks of the Columbia River near the community 20 years ago. They turned out to be the oldest intact set of bones ever found in the Americas.

The legislation passed last week will return the 8,500-year-old remains home.

"It's just a great deal of relief. It has been a 20-year ordeal," said Michael Marchand, chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed the man was of Native American descent earlier this year. It came after a long legal battle over whether the bones should be studied or given a Native American burial.

Under U.S. law, human remains that are Native American must be returned to the tribe that lived in the area, Marchand said. But with Kennewick Man, scientists initially had difficulty determining the origin of the bones.

Experts in the field of DNA approached the tribes and said they believed the ancestry of the remains could be verified, he said.

Members of the Colville tribes volunteered to give samples of their DNA to confirm there was a genetic link with Kennewick Man.

"We do believe that we are his descendents," Marchand told guest host David Lennam on CBC Radio's All Points West. "I believe he is literally one of my grandfathers."

Native American tribes in Washington State are celebrating after the U.S. Congress passed legislation to turn over ancient human remains. The move will return the the 8,500 year-old skeleton home to Kennewick, Wash. 7:34

It will likely take until next spring for the remains to be returned to the tribes, Marchand said. 

The legislation must still be reconciled with a similar bill passed by the U.S. Senate, and it will require President Obama's signature.

In the meantime, planning will start on a ceremony to honour Kennewick Man, Marchand said.