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Make No Bones About It

Kris Schnee

What do the American Indians, a 9,300-year-old man, and the Norse god Odin have in common?

They’re all involved in a strange dispute over burial rights and the origin of the first Americans.

“Kennewick Man,” a human skeleton about eighty-five percent complete, was discovered in 1996 in the Columbia River in Washington. He was apparently a middle-aged man (vaguely resembling actor Patrick Stewart) who had lived for years with a three-inch spear point lodged in his hip, and who was formally buried.

The Army Corps of Engineers had control of the bones after they were found by two college students, and the Corps at first attempted to give Kennewick Man away. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) made this the obvious decision -- since the skeleton was dated as being about 9,300 years old (although the age was later disputed), it was clearly pre-Columbian, and thus legally belonged to the local American Indian tribes for reburial.

The problem, though, was that these old bones were really something new. The skull features did not match those of modern Indians, and instead resembled those of Caucasians. In other words, it appeared as though Europeans were among the first settlers of America. (Some will probably gloat at the idea, as if the possibility that the “Native Americans” actually weren’t the true “natives” somehow justifies how they were steamrolled across the continent by modern Europeans.)

A group of eight scientists sued the Corps, demanding that they be allowed to study the remains. Kennewick Man is one of several skeletons that do not fit the traditional theory that the Americas were first peopled about 11,500 years ago by a single migration from Asia, a group of settlers who became all of the tribes encountered by Europeans after 1492. Naturally, archaeologists are eager to study new evidence like Kennewick Man, evidence that points to a new theory of multiple migrations from around the world, most of which died out.

But the Indians disapprove. A tribal confederation near the Kennewick site, the Umatilla Indian Reserve, wants the bones back now, for burial. They say that because the skeleton is old and was found on their land, it has been proven to be one of their ancestors, and is rightfully theirs. How do they know this? Said Armand Minthorn, an Umatilla leader: “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.”

What about the fact that the bones do not appear to be related to any Indian tribe? The New York Times quoted Deborah Croswell, Umatilla spokesperson, explaining: “[H]uman remains do not remain static over 9,000 years. Cranial features can change.”

While the Washington state school board might consider putting these novel ideas into next year’s science curriculum, they are poor excuses for archÆology. Kennewick Man cannot be ruled Umatilla property on the present evidence.

The letter of the law (NAGPRA) calls for the return of Native American remains to the most closely related group or, if it cannot be identified, to the most local group -- in this case, the Umatilla. But it is apparent that Kennewick Man’s bones are not, as such, Native American. The danger in this case is that the new archÆological evidence will literally be buried because it is simply assumed to be Native American, even though its identity and origin are exactly the case at issue.

Odin is on the side of science this time. A California-based religious group called the Asatru Folk Assembly, whose members worship the ancient Norse gods, consider Kennewick Man an important part of their European heritage, and have filed their own lawsuit. They demand that genetic tests be carried out on the bones, to confirm their identity. Unfortunately, the Asatru group does not simply want the bones studied -- its members also want custody of them, for proper (Viking?) burial. Considering that they have absolutely no claim of ownership besides the possibility that Kennewick Man was a fellow European (a connection most of America’s population shares), Asatru’s request to be given the skeleton will hopefully be given less consideration than the demand for DNA testing.

Just days ago, new evidence was released highlighting the need for further study: Kennewick Man is apparently not Caucasian either. Based on studies of the skull, as reported on October 15, Kennewick Man most closely resembles the Polynesians or the Japanese Ainu people. Asatru, undeterred, is still pushing for DNA testing based on the possibility that the skeleton might still be European. The Umatilla Reservation opposes tests and wants Kennewick Man buried quickly, on the grounds that taking bone samples is desecration of an Umatilla ancestor (according to tribal legend), and that it is unnecessary for them, as American Indians, to learn more about their own past -- “We already know our history.” (Minthorn’s words.)

The solution to this bizarre situation is to conduct further tests. We don’t know who Kennewick Man was, but what we know tells us that he was not a Native American in the sense of being closely related to the Umatilla tribes or any other modern Indian tribes. The Umatilla tribes feel strongly about their right to the bones, but their claims are not justified --subject to further evidence which can only be obtained by keeping the bones above ground for now. Therefore, the skeleton is no one’s property but the country’s, and no one has the right to forbid further study of it, even with minor bone sampling.

The Umatilla tribes can take comfort from the fact that the bones probably will be turned over to them someday, because the entire point that these recent skeletal finds redefine the term Native American will most likely be lost on the lawyers and judges who decide the case. The outcome won’t be known until this spring, when a court-ordered deadline will force the government to allow further research on the bones or, probably, send the case to trial. Kennewick Man’s fate may be burial by the Umatilla Tribes, granted for shaky legal or even political reasons, but we can hope for a better one.

Given that Kennewick Man represents a fascinating new line of archÆology, and (as far as we can tell) has no descendants left to claim him, the skeleton belongs where it can benefit and be seen by everyone -- in a museum.