Wanapum Dam’s River Drawdown Churns Up Old Bones, Inundates Guards

Mar 13, 2014

A second set of human remains have been found near the cracked Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River in eastern Washington, according to state officials.

The remains were found about 500 yards downstream from the first set of remains found last week near Crescent Bar.

The first set belongs to a Native American man and could be very old. The second skeleton is also Native American, but its gender is not yet known. Whatever the case, some locals hope to avoid what happened with the discovery of the Kennewick Man.

Drawdown Of River Uncovers Remains

More than 50 years ago, the Wanapum Dam’s pool cloaked scores of culturally significant sites, petroglyphs and graves deep under water. But now these important Native Americans artifacts and remains have been uncovered with the drawdown of the river water behind the damaged dam.

River guards and Native Americans are trying to educate ever-increasing numbers of gawkers and explorers that tampering with Native American or historical sites is against the law, and disrupting a gravesite is a felony.

“Anytime there’s a reduced river elevation, there are always the risk of exposing human remains and things like that that have been impacted by the result of river inundation,” said Grant County PUD spokesman Thomas Stredwick.

Hoping To Avoid Another Kennewick Man

The Washington state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation is scrambling to figure out what to do with both sets of remains. Allyson Brooks, the agency's director, says with more discoveries each day, her tiny agency can hardly keep up.

“The irony of TV shows like ‘Law and Order,’ ‘Bones’ and ‘CSI’ is that the public gets the sense that we can answer a question in 60 minutes or less.”

Brooks says what they don’t want is a repeat of what happened with Kennewick Man’s discovery nearly 20 years ago, just downriver from Vantage.

“It got really ugly really fast when it didn’t have to,” she said.

Those bones were found to be more than 9,000 years old. Local tribes wanted the remains turned over to them, but federal courts ruled they weren’t related to modern-day Native Americans, so the bones remain at the Burke Museum in Seattle.

But tribes haven’t given up hope of one day reburying the remains they call the “Ancient One.” Still, the recently found bones shouldn’t share the same fate, at least according to Brooks.

“We are not going to take pieces of the remains and carbon-14 date them at this point," she said, “or anything else.”

‘The Potential Is Just Enormous’

But some bone experts do hope that some additional study might be conducted on the found remains.

Tom Stafford, one of the lead scientists on Kennewick Man, is an expert at carbon-dating bones (of both human and animal) up to one million years old.

“Anytime you have a river or lake that has gone down or exposed an old 1800 A.D. village or something like this, the potential is just enormous,” he said.

But destroying bits of bone for tests, as was done with Kennewick Man, is highly offensive to Northwest tribes. Still, things are different now, according to Stafford. He says top DNA and carbon-dating scientists are increasing the dialogue and face-to-face meetings with Northwest tribes.

“To me, the Kennewick situation would never come up again," Stafford said. "It’s a unique scenario.”

So far, the leader of the Wanapum band of Native Americans, Rex Buck, Jr. says the state is treating these remains and cultural artifacts with respect.

Grant County officials say they’re going to up their patrols of the river shore. And Chelan County and Douglas County sheriff officers will be helping out on the Columbia River by week’s end.

No one seems to be sure about how long this drawdown and patrols will be needed.