Burial rites and civil wrongs

January 28, 2000

Should Kennewick Man's 9,000-year-old remains go to American Indians for burial or to scientists for research? Tim Cornwell reports on a row dividing academics

Three years after his bones were unearthed near the Columbia River, there is still no rest for Kennewick Man. The question of his final resting place, 9,000 years late - be it in an archaeological collection, laboratory or tribal burial ground - is still open, batted about by government agencies, scientists, Native American leaders and the courts.

With more hearings pending in March, the remains of Kennewick Man have become a test case for a law that gives Indian nations in the United States a large degree of control over anthropological finds on government or tribal land, placing their legal rights above those of academic researchers.

Kennewick Man was uncovered accidentally on land owned by the US Corps of Engineers in late 1996, about 150 miles from Seattle and the Pacific Coast, and was named after a local town. The remains consisted of 380 bones of a man aged about 45, who stood about 1.75m tall.

The skeleton was singled out not just as one of the oldest finds from the pre-Columbian period, but one of the most complete. Controversy exploded when a local forensic anthropologist, the first to study the bones, noted the unusually narrow face, long head and jutting chin, and dropped the word "caucasoid" into his description, in what he later said was a big mistake.

The suggestion that the 9,000-year-old remains were not Native American but somehow European sparked a furore. The controversy mounted when the US Corps of Engineers proposed that the bones be given over to a local Indian tribe for burial.

By one account, Kennewick Man had the long face of English Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart; by another, the jutting chin of Kirk Douglas. This month, however, the US Department of the Interior, the agency now handling the case, declared him officially Native American, armed with a new radiocarbon dating of close to 9,500 years. Last year, experts working for the department suggested that Kennewick Man looked more Asian or Polynesian than either European or Native American - and most closely resembled the Ainu, the aboriginal population of Japan. Now they have concluded that he lived out his adult life in America.

"He had to have been in the Northwest all of his life, at least from the time he was a young man," said Frank MacManamon, the Department of Interior's chief archaeologist. One clue was the point of a stone tool or weapon buried in his hip. Bone had closed around the object, showing the wound happened early in life, though it may have left him with a limp. Kennewick Man had been badly hurt by a blow aimed from the back and side. The fact that he survived suggested a local community was caring for him.

The finding is more than academic. Under the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, officials must identify which contemporary tribe has a "cultural affiliation" or "shared group identity" with Kennewick Man. Five local tribes - the Umatilla, Colville, Wanapum, Nez Perce and Yakama - have claimed him as an ancestor and under the act would get the right to his remains, for reburial if they wish. They were all living in the area when Europeans arrived.

The US government has engaged four experts to report on archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic, bio-archaeological and "traditional historic information", that is, oral histories, that might tie Kennewick Man to contemporary Native Americans.

Already the process is under the watchful eye of an Oregon court, after eight leading US researchers, from Oregon State University to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, sued for the right to study the remains. The lawsuit challenges NAGPRA's assumption that all remains dating before the European discovery of America are Native American.

"Age, and age alone, does not demonstrate that the remains are of Native American origin," one of the plaintiff scientists, Robson Bonnichsen, says. He complains that the law indiscriminately defines "Norse remains in MaineI and a lot of Japanese shipwrecks" as Native American. With a judge's apparent encouragement, the researchers have been seeking DNA tests on the bones.

The Astru Folk Assembly, a group with mysterious origins that claims to honour ancestors of Northern European origins, also said they wished to bury Kennewick Man. "If he's 100 per cent Norwegian, or if he's one of Leif Ericsson's men left behind, he's still to be given to the Indians," said president Stephen McNallen. Ericsson was the Norse explorer said to have reached America before Columbus. The group withdrew from the case this month.

The struggle over Kennewick Man has been portrayed as scientific inquiry versus a Native American variant of creationism. The general consensus among scholars is that Native Americans travelled from Siberia into Alaska over an ancient land bridge, crossing what became the Bering Strait, about 15,000 years ago and progressively settled in North and South America.

It is a tenet of Native American spiritual beliefs that they have lived on the continent since the world was made. To them, archaeological research, which for DNA or carbon-dating tests requires the destruction of ancestors' bones (albeit small amounts), is not just offensive but pointless. "Our elders have taught us that once a body goes into the ground, it is meant to stay there," Armand Minthorn, a leader of the Umatilla tribe, which was originally offered Kennewick Man, told reporters. "We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do."

The real offence to Native Americans and their beliefs, however, is much more recent. At the same period in its history that the US was driving Native Americans off their lands, it was busy hoarding their bones. From 1868, US army officers in the American West were formally ordered to collect Native American remains, partly for cranial measurements to test racial theories of brain size against European skulls. In 1898 alone, the Smithsonian Institution received 2,206 skulls from the army. "We are talking about hundreds of thousands (of bones)," said Dr James Nason, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and a curator at the university's Burke Museum, where Kennewick Man is being studied.

In the late 1980s, activists put pressure on US museums and universities to give up their Indian bones, along with tens of thousands of sacred artefacts. Stanford University pledged to hand over its 550 skeletal remains; in 1993, the Smithsonian Institution handed over the remains of 18 Cheyenne men, women and children killed by soldiers in 1879 for reburial in Montana.

In 1990, the US Congress passed NAGPRA. The law provided for national museums and US government agencies to "repatriate" cultural objects and human remains to federally recognised tribes. It banned the "trafficking" in any such remains and laid down procedures to be followed if, as in the Kennewick case, they were found accidentally on government or tribal land. It laid down a timetable for full and public inventories of collections, in a process that has proved slow and laborious but is apparently well under way.

Nason, who grew up in Los Angeles, is part Comanche. His museum has spent more than $1 million sending notices to 750 tribes, backed by 40,000 "person-hours" of research on its own remains, as a preliminary to "repatriation". He is a firm defender of the spirit of NAGPRA, which he bundles with other laws granting basic rights to Native Americans, who were not even guaranteed US citizenship until 1924. "It is first and foremost civil rights legislation," he says, offering "exactly the same rights of burial and protection of the dead enjoyed by all other Americans."

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