Many remains were disinterred prior to flooding by Snake River dams. Photo by John Clement
Many remains were disinterred prior to flooding by Snake River dams. Photo by John Clement

On a bluff above the Snake River, a few miles upstream from the Tri-Cities, people are gathering on a July morning to bury their dead. Or rebury, actually. The bones that fill the ordinary cardboard boxes sitting next to a deep open grave have spent decades in a laboratory storeroom. On one box is printed in neat letters, “woman and child.”

A warm breeze rustles the sage and wild rye, as people approach the grave in small groups, people of the Yakama, Colville, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Wannapum. Although the identities of the remains are uncertain, they are certainly ancestors of many of those gathered here.

Larry Greene and Jason Buck dug the grave before anyone else arrived. Now they relax in the warm sun and talk about the significance of this site. Various tribes gathered here, they say, for trade and games. Greene’s mother’s people, from the Red Heart Band, spent part of the year here, coming down from Priest Rapids on a yearly migration.

This is the third repatriation of human remains from the Washington State University collections. This set of remains had comprised the teaching collection used in a class on osteology, the study of the human skeleton, and had been gleaned from other regional collections by Grover Krantz, the longtime physical anthropologist at WSU who taught the class.

Many of the collections at the University, whether they contain human remains or not, had been hurriedly salvaged from the canyons of the Columbia and Snake rivers before they were inundated in the 1960s by rising waters behind the newly-built dams.

The repatriations are the legal result of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Passed by Congress in 1990, NAGPRA requires agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return cultural items and human remains to their descendants.

NAGPRA countered decades of scientific collecting of American Indian remains. In a way, the attitude that justified collecting from gravesites stemmed from the belief of Thomas Jefferson, arguably the first American archaeologist, that Indians should be studied as natural history. During the late 19th century, the Smithsonian Institution encouraged collecting of bones and artifacts as an attempt to understand the “vanishing Americans.”

Krantz, like many of his colleagues, held very much to the evolution of that attitude. Human remains were no different from any other object of scientific investigation. As testimony to that conviction, before he died in 2002, Krantz arranged to have his bones sent to the Smithsonian for use in teaching and research.

Mary Collins, an anthropologist and director of WSU’s Museum of Anthropology, initiated this and other repatriations of WSU collections. She was also a student of Krantz’s and had indeed studied the bones that are being reburied today.

“I remember feeling not quite right,” she says, thinking back to the experience.

Once everyone has gathered, the men move to one side of the grave, the women face across from the other. People begin to sing as the boxes are opened. The remains, which are wrapped neatly in plain fabric, are handed to a man in the grave and placed gently, at last, in their final resting place, on a bed of tule mats. Once they are all in place, there is a collective sigh as the singing ends. The man in the grave covers the remains carefully with more mats and climbs out. Immediately, the men grab shovels and, together, fill in the grave.

Once the grave is covered, Rex Buck, of the Wannapum, invites everyone to share their thoughts. People talk, both in English and native tongue, about their relief at having their ancestors at rest where they belong. They shouldn’t be on shelves, someone says. Another person hopes for the repatriation of the “Ancient One,” commonly known as Kennewick Man.

Repatriation is an aptly chosen word, maybe as close as an English word can get to the significance of this ceremony. To repatriate is to restore or return to the country of birth, citizenship, or origin.

“Their bones are back in the Earth,” says Barbara Aretha, of the Yakama. “Their ancestors are waiting for them.”