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Kennewick Man: mediator between past and future

By Kate Riley Seattle Times editorial columnist

I've been thinking a lot lately about a guy in the news who used to share my old stomping grounds.

We both are fairly recent transplants from Kennewick and reside in North Seattle. Actually, I reside; he reposes at the Burke Museum under lock and key.

I've been enamored of Kennewick Man, the remains of a man who died 9,400 years ago, ever since that hot July day in 1996 when his skull was found by wading hydroplane race fans between Columbia Cup heats.

When it turned out the 380 bones found were not those of a victim of recent foul play but of a man who nine millennia before walked the same area where a friend and I met to walk on Saturdays, I was hooked on the possibilities. I wondered about this tough guy, who walked around for half of his 45 years with a spear point embedded in his hip. I wondered if he enjoyed the shrub steppe landscape and the Columbia River as much as I did, or if he was too focused on survival to care.

Thanks to an Aug. 30 federal court ruling, Kennewick Man soon might be able to share some of these answers and help tell the story of the earliest Americans.

I've rooted all along for the eight scientists who sued to study the remains when the federal government hastily decided to turn them over to five tribes who claim Kennewick Man as a distant ancestor.

I am also sympathetic to the tribes' concerns. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 is a righteous law intended to return Native American remains and artifacts to the tribes with whom they are culturally affiliated.

Kennewick Man's lineage, however, is not so easy to determine. Limited studies to determine the remains' cultural affiliation found his features are very different from those of the Native Americans who claim him as a grandfather at least 375 generations removed -- that's 375 "greats." Rather, he resembles people of Polynesia or the Ainu of Japan -- as well as other ancient skeletons found in North America. Some experts say he looks more like the 25,000-year-old remains of a woman found near Beijing than modern Native Americans, suggesting links to Asia. Kennewick Man should belong not just to Native Americans but to all of humanity. Potentially, his bones provide a link to our common past, perhaps before evolution divided humans into races.

Unfortunately, the law is vague on what to do about cases such as Kennewick Man, where the remains are so exceptional in their age and features that a credible affiliation is not possible.

And there's the rub. The Army Corps of Engineers, which owned the beach where Kennewick Man was found, and later the Interior Department have maintained the repatriation act applies. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt ruled the remains were Native American, because they were found in the United States and pre-dated Columbus' landing in America.

Setting aside that this "1492 rule" ignores evidence of earlier Viking visits, Babbitt's decision ignored that Kennewick Man's features are distinct from those who claim to be his descendents.

U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks, the referee of this battle between science and Native American beliefs, disagreed strongly with the government. His 73-page ruling called the decision "arbitrary and capricious" and determined the repatriation law does not apply. Jelderks ordered the scientists be permitted to study the remains.

Government attorneys aren't saying yet whether they'll appeal. But they shouldn't. And the Interior Department's NAGPRA Review Committee, which is in the process of drafting rules to handle these culturally unidentifiable remains, should carefully consider the conclusions of Jelderks' meticulous ruling. The committee's next meeting is Nov. 10-11 in Seattle, and it had planned to consider a proposed rule that would give such remains to the tribes that have lived in the area where they were found.

That's an inadequate solution, because it assumes that ancient people stayed put, never moving over generations. Early findings about the 11,000-year-old remains, Pan Era Woman, found recently along the Texas Gulf Coast, suggest a diet of someone who lived inland, far from where her bones were found.

So far, a repatriation act claim has not been made for Pan Era Woman's remains also found on federal property, but that is a possibility. Other ancient remains yet to be found could be subject to the same sort of legal battle as over Kennewick Man, which so far has cost American taxpayers $3 million.

Better that Congress move quickly to clarify what should be done with these ancient remains that cannot be traced to modern Native Americans. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, had proposed an amendment in the last Congress that would have done so. A spokesman said last week he might try again.

I hope he does. Kennewick Man and similar ancient remains have much to tell the world about our common heritage. And now, barring an ill-considered government appeal, Kennewick Man will get the chance.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is [email protected]

Copyright 2002 The Seattle Times Company

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