Some preserved sites.
Some history and culture
Controversies Concerning Archaeology
American Indian Voices
News Archive Index
Return to main Learn page
Please inform the webmaster of any broken links!
By JAMES C. CHATTERS
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
Go to News Archive Index