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Longtime leader of Native American Wanapum band dead at 66

A smiling man with long gray hair in a ponytail wears a red striped vest. A medallion with the image of a bald eagle hangs around his neck.
Burke Museum
Rex Buck Jr.

The longtime leader of the Wanapum band of Native Americans has died.

Rex Buck Jr., 66, died Feb. 11 at his ancestral village of P’na at Priest Rapids on the Columbia River in Grant County, according to an obituary distributed by the Grant County Public Utility District on Monday. No cause of death was listed.

The Tri-City Herald reported that the Wanapum band lived at what is now the Hanford Nuclear Reservation site until the land was seized during World War II and the Wanapum were forced to resettle at their winter campsite in Priest Rapids.

“Rex was thoughtful and sincere, a leader who took his responsibility to the land seriously, consistently ensuring that the department understood the perspectives and priorities of the Wanapum people,” said Brian Vance, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford manager.

Buck was given the responsibility of leading the Wanapum people while still in his 20s, according to the obituary. He was relentless in his support of Wanapum culture, the obituary said.

He worked, with his wife, Angela, to build the Wanapum Heritage Center in 2015 on Highway 243. The museum tells the story of the Wanapum people and is also a place where the Wanapum can pass on their language and traditional lifestyle to new generations, according to his obituary.

Last month, the Burke Museum of the University of Washington in Seattle named Buck an archaeology curatorial associate to honor his decades of contributions to the museum and his work to repatriate the remains of Native Americans, including the skeleton known as Kennewick Man.

The approximately 9,000-year-old bones of Kennewick Man were found on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996.

One of the most complete ancient skeletons ever found, the bones set off a legal custody battle between the U.S. government, scientists and Native American tribes that lasted for years.

In 2015, it was announced that DNA analysis had shown that Kennewick Man had the most genetic similarity among living peoples to Native Americans, including those in the Columbia River region where the skeleton was found. The bones were reburied in 2017 at an undisclosed location.

The Burke Museum became the court-appointed repository for Kennewick Man, known by Native Americans as The Ancient One, in 1998. Working with the museum, Buck helped ensure proper care for The Ancient One for 19 years until the bones were reburied.

He also helped repatriate hundreds of ancestors and tens of thousands of objects for multiple Columbia River tribal nations as part of the Burke Museum‘s commitments under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Buck is survived by his wife, seven children and grandchildren.

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