Will the skeleton be studied or reburied? That is the question. The fate of Kennewick Man is now in a judge's hands, the culmination of a stark disagreement between some scientists and Native Americans.
Found five years ago along the Columbia River, Kennewick Man is a 9,500-year-old skeleton and the center of a fight I always feared would happen the moment NAGPRA hit the law books. NAGPRA stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and was enacted by Congress in 1990. Its intent was to give back, or "repatriate," human remains and other sacred items to tribes that could prove a connection to them.
As a former archeologist with training in the analysis of human bone, I found the premise of NAGPRA unfortunate. It began to split archeologists into two camps -- the "pro-science" camp and the "post-modern" or politically correct camp. The latter has come to dominate discussion, so that an alliance with science is often viewed as covertly racist. This climate effectively shuts off frank debate about the way the law is carried out.
I do not dispute that white scientists in the past have been less than ethical in their treatment of Native American remains, and I understand that science, like any human practice, needs an ethical code. I also understand that there are profound cultural differences in how whites and Native Americans view their dead.
But none of that leads to a country deciding to bury information.
New technology has allowed for startling amounts of previously unavailable information to come out of bone. As recently as the 1980s, physical anthropologists figured out how to perform trace element analysis on bone, thereby determining just what people were eating by comparing ratios of elements such as strontium, calcium and carbon isotopes.
In the past decade, enormous work has been done with DNA, so much so that we now know we all came from a common ancestor ("Eve"), and can measure DNA from bone samples to determine ancestral relationships. This kind of data is spectacularly new, providing windows into the past unseen before, windows that provide information for all humanity and not just white scientists.
But what happens when every skeleton in this country goes back into the ground after discovery? Worlds of research will forever be sealed off.
Jim Chatters, the researcher who first analyzed Kennewick Man, notes that tribes in his area of the Columbia River Basin once expressed little interest in remains too ancient to be tied to their oral tradition. After the repatriation law was passed, interest suddenly materialized, and tribes began seeing all pre-colonial remains as "ancestral."
In Idaho, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe initially expressed no interest in a skeleton because its projected age placed it outside the time that oral tradition said the tribe had come to Idaho. But under a new government, the tribe changed its mind, and despite there being no "preponderance of evidence" pointing to a relationship to the skeleton, the tribe gained possession. That also may be what happens if the Umatilla, Nez Perce and other Columbia Basin tribes win their legal battle for Kennewick Man. A U.S. magistrate in Portland, Ore., will soon decide if former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was correct in turning over the skeleton to the tribes for burial.
I think the tribes should lose.
Kennewick Man is too old for oral history. He is not biologically similar to Native Americans. When found on the edge of the Columbia River at Kennewick, Wash., he was not on land claimed as ancestral by any tribe in the area, even though the Umatillas have, apparently, at times made it seem otherwise.
All of these are criteria for determining cultural connection, and if you choose to interpret NAGPRA with these stipulations in mind, Kennewick Man is free to be examined. But if you choose to interpret it to the extent that all pre-colonial remains are by definition "Native" -- and the tribes and the U.S. government have so far done so -- then back into the ground the skeleton goes.
Unfortunately, to challenge the law as Chatters and eight other scientists have done is to risk attack as insensitive, if not downright racist. This is a shame.
Science is simply one very effective method of seeing. For many Native Americans and for scientific researchers like myself, the past is very much a part of the living present. The evidence gathered from what few skeletons we have from Kennewick Man's time speaks not of modern racial lines, but of progenitors to us all. What a shame if those early human beings were not allowed to teach us -- Indian and white alike -- what they know; what a shame to turn those elders back into the gnawing earth.
Kate Niles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. (www.hcn.org). She lives in the Durango area of Colorado.