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Politics Aside, These Bones Belong to Everybody In the Fray


Last Friday, Judge John Jelderks of U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., filed his opinion in Bonnichsen et al. v. U.S. He decided in favor of eight prominent anthropologists who had been suing for the right to study Kennewick Man, a nearly complete skeleton with the potential to change conventional understanding of how the Americas were peopled. The decision has far-reaching implications for the future of archaeology in the U.S. and for Americans' access to the ancient history of our homeland.

The story began in 1996 when remains of a middle-aged male were found on Washington's Columbia River and, despite physical characteristics much different from those of Native Americans and their ancestors, proved to be 9,500 years old. This was one of the earliest and best-preserved ancient skeletons yet found in North America, a scientific treasure. Kennewick Man was then in my laboratory, where I was studying him at the local coroner's request. I had barely begun when local Indian tribes claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor and demanded to rebury him immediately, without further study. The federal government moved quickly to comply with the Indians' wishes, even as requests for study poured in. The anthropologists, alarmed by the potential loss to America's early heritage, filed suit.

Here first? Kennewick Man reconstructed.

Science lost much as the case dragged on. At the behest of the tribes, Jelderks noted, the Clinton White House buried the discovery site so we could not study it. The Interior Department undertook studies seeking to bolster the politically motivated decision to repatriate, destroying important parts of the skeleton for ill-planned, unsuccessful analyses. Awaiting the case's outcome, some agencies delayed decisions on other early skeletons, keeping them, too, out of scholars' reach; others hastened questionable repatriations. Research was disrupted or abandoned.

At issue in this case was interpretation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a 1990 law that protects American Indian graves on federal land and lets tribes claim culturally affiliated skeletons. All the scientists involved in the Kennewick case have been supportive of repatriations. Though I am not a litigant because of my brief study of Kennewick Man, I have conducted repatriations for some of the same tribes who claimed this skeleton. I support the purpose of the law. But the act was not intended to turn over all ancient skeletons to some Indian tribe, regardless of relationship. Drafted as a compromise between the public's right to knowledge and Native Americans' right to protect their dead, NAGPRA included two key stipulations: the skeleton must be Native American and tribes must demonstrate cultural affiliation -- a shared group identity -- for a claim to be accepted.

Instead of following these stipulations, some federal agencies and museums allow tribes to claim all skeletons, no matter how ancient, from territories they occupied historically. Some tribes have attempted to claim all artifacts -- even food bones and plant bits discarded as trash by the ancients -- as sacred, to restrict who can study this material, and to dictate what conclusions those investigators may draw. NAGPRA has become a tool for controlling all knowledge about America's past, regardless of how mundane. The past is not a possession, no matter what people experienced it. It is a series of events that left behind physical traces -- geologic layers, fossil plants and animals, and artifacts. Archaeologists have been trained to read those traces and serve the public by helping them glimpse the lives of our predecessors. Such knowledge shows us how we fit into the great tapestry of cultural and biological evolution. It inspires. To allow only a politically acceptable few to read that past and to dictate their interpretations blocks us from the full richness of our common heritage.

Because Kennewick Man did not resemble modern Native Americans and could not be culturally linked, even indirectly, to any modern Indian society, Judge Jelderks ruled that he is not Native American under the law. Therefore, NAGPRA does not apply. The applicable legislation is the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which was designed to protect discoveries so that they might be studied for the benefit of all Americans.

Kennewick Man will not be reburied. He and his people, whoever they were, may assume their rightful place in the human story.

Native American activists will claim that this superbly reasoned decision strikes yet another blow to their human rights and guts NAGPRA. It does not. Tribes can still rebury individuals who are demonstrably their kin -- probably more than 95% of all skeletons held in museums. But not every person who died in America before Columbus's arrival, nor all archaeological knowledge, will be subject to tribal control.

Mr. Chatters is the author of "Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans."

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