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'Kennewick Man,' 13 years later

The sensational scientific claim devolved into more of a legal dispute over Native claims on pre-immigrant human remains.

Thirteen years ago Sunday, two young men wading in the Columbia River shallows stumbled on a mud-clotted skull. Most such grisly remains are soon traced to Indian grave-grounds, 19th century burials, or recent murders; this one was different. In late August, James Chatters, the expert called in by the Benton County coroner, announced to the press that these remains were sometime more intriguing: the almost complete skeleton of a healthy (though crippled) middle-aged male who lived and hunted in the Columbia basin nearly 10,000 years ago.

Archeologically, that was big news; datable human remains that old are extremely rare in North America. But the discovery still wouldn’t have attracted a lot of notice had Dr. Chatters, a UW archeology grad, not also noted that in his professional opinion, the deceased was racially quite distinct from Native Americans who occupied the Columbia basin in historic times; his skull was, Chatters said, “Caucasoid” in conformation. That one word was enough to turn the discovery into an international media sensation. Newspapers from Japan to Scandinavia ran banner variations on the theme: “Prehistoric White Man Found in New World Grave!”

From that point onward, science took a back seat to politics. Since 1990, U.S. law has demanded that pre-immigrant human remains and artifacts found on federal land are to be presumed those of ancestors of Native Americans occupying the area in historic times, and Native Americans in turn were awarded the right to reclaim such remains from museums, scientific institutions, and private collections. For many Native Americans, an unburied ancestor is an abomination. But one man’s abomination is another’s professional or avocational bread and butter. And the law in question (the Native American Graves Preservation and Repatriation Act) was seen by both curators at the Smithsonian Institution and weekend arrowhead collectors as an intolerable interference with their freedoms.

The Kennewick discovery offered a way to challenge NAGPRA. Yes, the remains were found on federal land (the banks of the Columbia in the Tri-Cities are controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). But the remains were “Caucasoid” — a scientist had said so. To some vocal critics of NAGPRA, that meant that Kennewick Man was not ancestral to contemporary native Americans and therefore not subject to repatriation to the tribes.

In science, the word “Caucasoid” has almost no meaning. But scientists soon appeared, willing to march under the banner of pseudoscience if it served to challenge the abhorred NAGPRA. Eight eminent archeologists and anthropologists filed suit in federal court to prevent the U.S. from repatriating the remains before they had a chance to examine them to determine whether they were subject to NAGPRA or not. If they weren’t, then the examination was retroactively justified; if they were — well, sorry, here’s your skeleton back, but we’ve made our point. The burden of demonstrating Native American affiliation was now on the feds and the tribes, and scientific examination the only way to prove it.

In 2004, after seven years of litigation and millions in legal fees, Federal Judge John Jeldercks agreed with the scientific plaintiffs, who were allowed to conduct the extensive tests they demanded. Anyone expecting sensational results has been disappointed. No formal results have been published, but occasional public remarks by the investigators involved indicate that nothing of scientific significance has been added to the results of James Chatters’ initial basement-lab forensics. But for the plaintiffs and their financial backers, establishing a precedent was more important than results. Native Americans are now on notice that they can expect to be challenged whenever scientists (or those with a political agenda willing to fund them) care to dispute their presumed rights in court.

Roger Downey is a Seattle writer interested in food, the arts, the sciences, and urban manners. He is currently working on a book about the birth of opera in 1630s Venice.


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