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

By Anna King

State officials are reporting Thursday the discovery of a second set of human remains near the cracked Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River . 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. Protecting wide expanses of river shore is taxing a small band of Native Americans, county and state guards.

Miles of rocky shoals and sand along the Columbia River shore has been exposed behind Wanapum Dam. Now, Washington State official are worried over the safety of newly-found human remains. Photo by Anna King.I drive up near Vantage. I want to see the lowered Columbia River behind the massive Wanapum Dam. I stop at a turnoff along the highway. And walk along the river cobble that would normally be deep under water. It’s amazing.

The river guards and Native Americans are trying to educate ever-increasing numbers of gawkers and explorers. Tampering with Native American or historical sites is against the law, and disrupting a gravesite is a felony. Thomas Stredwick is a spokesman for Grant County PUD.

Thomas Stredwick: “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.”

There are dozens of miles to keep safe. We now know the first skeleton discovered last week near Crescent Bar is male, Native American and could be very old. The second skeleton is also Native American but its gender isn’t known. This new discovery was found just 500 yards or so downstream from the first.


Photo: Miles of rocky shoals and sand along the Columbia River shore has been exposed behind Wanapum Dam. Now, Washington State official are worried over the safety of newly-found human remains. Photo by Anna King.

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

Allyson Brooks: “The irony of TV shows like Law and Order, and 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. That was nearly 20 years ago just downriver from Vantage.

Allyson Brooks: “It got really ugly really fast when it didn’t have to.”

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 what they call the “Ancient One.”

Still, the recently found bones shouldn’t share the same fate. At least according to Brooks.
Allyson Brooks: “We are not going to take pieces of the remains and carbon 14 date them. At this point, or anything else.”

But some bone experts do hope that some additional study might be done. Tom Stafford is an expert carbon-dater of bones up to a million-years-old – both human and animal. He was one of the lead scientists on Kennewick Man.

Tom Stafford: “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.”

But destroying bits of bone -- like on Kennewick Man -- for tests 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.

Tom Stafford: “To me, the Kennewick situation would never come up again. 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.

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