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But eight anthropologists, led by Owsley, contested that proposed repatriation, pointing to Kennewick Man's potential contributions to science and the fact that he could not be linked to any specific area tribe. In 1996 the group filed a lawsuit with a U.S. District Court in Portland. Five Indian nations — the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Yakama Indian Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Colville and Warm Springs nations — teamed up to fight the anthropologists in court, contending that the repatriation law covered Kennewick Man, and that scientific examinations disrespected Native American beliefs about the sanctity of their dead. The Wanapum, though not a federally recognized tribe because they never signed any treaties with the United States, nonetheless supported the others in this matter
In 2002, Judge John Jelderks ruled in the anthropologists' favor. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in 2004. The Corps, which remains Kennewick Man's legal guardian, put him in the Burke Museum, a neutral site agreeable to both the tribes and scientists. Today Kennewick Man is stored in numerous specially designed boxes in the Burke Museum's nondescript, but electronically secure basement. The museum is mum on his exact location for security reasons.
Temperature and humidity sensors monitor each storage locker. The greatest room climate changes occur when a locker is opened. The bones are handled as sparingly as possible, since merely holding them — even with the required protective gloves — can rub off thin bits of irreplaceable matter. Meanwhile, no one else besides the litigation's plaintiffs — and Chatters in the 1990s — have studied the bones.
Even after they finally began in 2006, scientific studies dragged out for six years. The scientists were juggling numerous other long in-depth projects and the studies themselves were extensive. Scans, molds and models were made. Countless bone fractures were sorted out — pre-death, post-mortem and post-post-mortem (thousands of years later). Calcium carbonate and algae deposits on the bones were analyzed. Teeth — only one molar was missing — were studied.
Those studies have led to two books. The first, Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and The Paleoamerican World, by Owsley and science writer Susan Walker, came out this month as a public-friendly look at the bones. Another super-thick scientific book, written by numerous scientists, is due out in another 14 months according to Owsley, who led the studies and is editing the book.
But what those books won't say is how Kennewick Man died. That's the hardest question of all. "I do not know. It will take someone with better eyes than I to tell what killed him," Owsley said. At least for now, some facts about Kennewick Man are staying buried.
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