Rex Buck Jr., an elder and cultural leader of the Wanapum tribe, known to many for his work to bring Kennewick Man home for reburial, has died of cancer. He was 66.

Buck, whose Indian name was Puck Hyah Toot, died on Feb. 11 at P’na, the Wanapum’s village in Grant County.

He worked tirelessly with other tribal leaders to help return the skeletal remains of the Ancient One, or Kennewick Man, to the Columbia Plateau for reburial, in a struggle waged in and out of court for some 20 years. The 1996 discovery of the more than 9,000-year-old skeleton, one of the oldest and most complete ever found in North America, roiled the scientific world and ignited what would become an international uproar over the rights of Indigenous people to care for their ancestors.

Buck’s composure and persistence made him uniquely effective in working on the most sensitive and serious issues, said Julie Stein, director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, whose work with Buck dates back to the 1990s. He was the one who, in a difficult moment, could tell the joke that helped break the tension, and never became angry — even when there was every reason to be, she said.

“He just thought we could get more done if we worked together instead of yelling at each other, and he spread that approach,” Stein said. Buck’s signature teaching, she said, was “One heart. One mind. Be patient. Move Forward.”

During the ongoing battle over repatriating the Ancient One, Buck and other spiritual leaders from the Columbia Plateau traveled regularly to the Burke Museum, the court-appointed repository for the remains, to conduct ceremonies for the Ancient One, to make sure he knew that there, within a vault, he was not forgotten.

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Through it all, Buck kept his trademark dignified and gracious bearing, observers recalled, working for return of the Plateau people’s ancestor with his unique brand of pleasant persistence.

Buck once invited Smithsonian anthropologist Doug Owsley, who led the court battle to study Kennewick Man, to present his findings to a room of Plateau elders, explaining, “He’s just a person, why not call him?” At Buck’s invitation, Owsley confidently held forth for a daylong presentation convened in Ellensburg by Central Washington University in 2012, showing his slides and explaining why they were wrong and that the skeleton was not of a man of Native American descent at all, or even from the area.

At day’s end, Buck, unruffled, wrapped Owsley in a Pendleton blanket, a traditional gesture of respect in Indian Country, and thanked him for beginning what he knew would be a continuing relationship based on listening to each other.

In 2016, just as tribes said, DNA testing on a tiny finger bone fragment proved the skeleton most closely matched the ancestors of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. In 2017, the Ancient One was finally reburied by tribal spiritual leaders in his home territory.

Polly Rigdon-Olsen, a Yakama tribal elder, tribal liaison and director of decolonization for the Burke, remembered Buck as a friend and mentor who taught so many.

“Rex had a beautiful spirit. He has big love and it shines through his life, his light, and his smile, he brings that into the room,” Rigdon-Olsen said.

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Because of his diplomatic skills, Buck always had a heart for inclusion, to make sure tribes of different regions and cultural practices were included in discussions, Rigdon-Olsen said. “His equity and tribal inclusion, and voice, was balanced.”

Among his many awards and professional acknowledgments, Buck just this month was appointed an archaeology curatorial associate at the Burke Museum, in honor of his decades of contributions to the field of archaeology and repatriation.

Buck was able to assist in even complex repatriation situations in which multiple tribes were involved, resulting in tens of thousands of objects and remains finally being returned to their rightful places, said Peter Lape, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and curator of archaeology at the Burke.

“He had this genius ability, this fundamental love and care that he leads with — that, and keeping eyes on the prize,” Lape said. Even in tough disputes, Buck helped tribes get beyond drawing a line in the sand, to bring relatives home. “It was his skill as a leader that we need more of, he had so much respect, he earned that over his life.”

Buck was born in Toppenish, Yakima County. He grew up at P’na and graduated from Royal City High School and started work at the Grant County Public Utility District in 1975, and later became an electrical foreman, according to an obituary written by the utility district.

He began leading the Wanapum people while still a young man in his 20s, and he was instrumental in nurturing relationships with agencies at every level for the purpose of protecting Wanapum ancestral territory to sustain their traditional lifestyle, including hunting, fishing, and gathering roots, medicines and plant materials.

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Buck also worked to protect sacred sites and burial areas and fought for salmon passage across dams on the Mid-Columbia. With his wife, Angela, he helped build the new Wanapum Heritage Center that opened in 2015.

In addition to serving as a regional museum, the center is a gathering place for cultural activities, including language preservation and learning traditional practices, from tool making to canoe carving and food gathering.

A longhouse leader in the Waashat religion, Buck officiated at traditional ceremonies across the region. He also was generous in sharing his cultural knowledge with outsiders, whether by inviting county commissioners to the tribe’s traditional spring root feast, or guiding non-Natives in better understanding Wanapum ideas, traditions and practices.

For Wilson Wewa, council member at the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs of Oregon, it was Buck’s humility that set him apart.

“It was his humbleness that won many battles for the people of the Plateau,” Wewa said. “People wanted to be his ally because of the way he spoke. He was genuine. He never used questionable tactics to get from one place to another. He was always up front with everybody.”

A master of consultation and alliances, Buck always worked with his elders and leaders of other tribes, seeking their testimony and advice on how to proceed with whatever endeavor he was involved with, Wewa said.

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“He never did it alone … those are the qualities that I think embody a true leader,” Wewa said. “And if he did make a mistake, he was quick to own it.”

In the stunned days since his passing, Mr. Buck has been buried with high ceremony and great love. “It is not going to be easy,” Wewa said. “Maybe he was one of a kind.”

Family were not available for interviews because tradition requires them to not speak of their relative for one year after death.

According to the PUD obituary, Buck’s survivors include his wife, Angela Buck, of 46 years; his children Jason, Clayton, Johnny, Rex III, Alex, Lela and Tanu; and his grandchildren.

Services have been held.