Old bones create new legal controversy

By Karrie

When two college students from Kennewick, Wash., stumbled over a skull on the Columbia River bank last summer, they ignited a bitter controversy. Thinking they had found a missing murder victim, they called the police.
Forensic anthropologist James Chatters was called to examine the skull. The bone color alerted him to its age. He searched the riverbank for the rest of the skeleton, finding it remarkably intact and lying in shallow water.
Archaeology, an online publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, describes the skeleton: “He had a long, narrow skull, a projecting nose, receding cheekbones, a high chin and a square mandible. The lower bones of the arms and legs were relatively long compared to the upper bones. These traits are not characteristic of modern American Indians in the area, though many of them are common among Caucasoid peoples.” Forensics experts who were asked to examine it and who were not told how old it was unanimously agreed it was a dead white male.
CAT scans revealed an Archaic Indian spear point embedded in the pelvis, while radiocarbon tests dated the skeleton at 9,200 years old, a little early for hitchhiking with Columbus.
Because of the skeleton’s age, the Umatilla, Yakama, Colville, Nez Perce and Wanapum Indians have demanded the skeleton be repatriated to their tribes for immediate reburial. Under the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, “any Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of inalienable communal property that are found on federal or tribal lands after the date of enactment would be considered owned or controlled by (in this order) lineal descendants, the tribe on whose land it was found, the tribe having the closest cultural affiliation with the item, or the tribe which aboriginally occupied the area.”
The Army Corps of Engineers determined the skeleton, dubbed “Kennewick Man,” fell under the grave protection act and locked it away. Currently, tribal requests for the bones are under review.
Eight anthropologists filed suit, claiming the Army Corps of Engineers has violated the law in three ways. First of all, there is no evidence the skeleton falls under the federal protection act. The Caucasoid characteristics and age of the skeleton do not indicate cultural affiliation with modern tribes, which are relatively recent. But the act never allowed for the possibility that current theories of North American human origins were wrong, and anything over a certain age has to be considered indigenous.
Their second complaint is that the federal act itself has been broken. It allows for study of remains when the outcome of the study would be “of major benefit to the United States.” Lawyers noted in a memorandum that the skeleton was critical to the Smithsonian’s ancient populations project which “will be of major benefit not only to the United States but to the world.”
The anthropologists also feel they are being denied access to the bones because of their race and religion, an interesting claim considering how Native Americans have framed the debate.
Sebastian LeBeau, repatriation officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux, was quoted in the Tri-City Herald as saying, “We never asked science to make a determination as to our origins. We know where we come from. We are the descendants of the Buffalo people. They came from inside the earth after supernatural spirits prepared this world for humankind to live here. If non-Indians choose to believe they evolved from an ape so be it.”
Since the skeleton may be of European ancestry, withholding it from the scientists denies them inquiry into their ancestral past essentially because of their ancestral past.
According to the Seattle Times, Grover Krantz has theorized that “Caucasian-like people represented by the skeleton died out in a severe Western drought about 9,000 years ago and were replaced a few thousand years later by the ancestors of today’s Indians.” What if this, or countless other theories, are never investigated because Native American religions dictate they were first?
In Hourglass, Colo., Native Americans allowed non-harmful study of bones before repatriation, showing peaceful compromise is possible. But the Umatilla feel any compromise represents total loss to the white man. This is understandable considering the historical treatment of Native Americans, even by anthropologists. They used to dig fresh graves and sell skulls like souvenirs. But anthropology has come a long way, and Kennewick Man may be an ancestor common to many peoples.
As Chatters said to The New Yorker, “We need to look at things as human beings, not as one race or another. The message this man brings to us is one of unification: there may be some commonality in our past that will bring us together.” At least in theory.

Karrie Higgins’ column appeared in Tuesday’s edition of The Daily Iowan.