Journal of Indian Justice:
Kennewick Man


A NY Times article from April 2, 2000 as the battle continues, despite the Department of the Interior ruling.


As I reported Jan. 13, 2000 for 7amNews

One of America’s hottest scientific and political controversies came to an official end today as the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that the “Kennewick Man” remains are native to this land and not European.

Scientific testing puts the skull and skeletal remains at more than 9,300 years old, meaning that the remains could eventually be turned over to Native American tribes for repatriation and reburial. Since 1996, Kennewick Man, discovered near Kennewick, Wash, has been at the center of a custody battle with sociological and political implications.

Almost immediately after Kennewick man was found, independent archaeologist James Chatters set out to prove that the skeleton was European. In a statement on his web pages, Chatters said European remains of an earlier age than previously known would “…significantly alter conventional views of how, when, and by whom the Americas were peopled.”

Other groups, seeking to dispossess Native Americans of their status as the first peoples of the American continent, joined in. Chief among them was the Asatru Folk Assembly, a Nordic-based group seeking to revive Odin-related religions. The group, which recently dropped its lawsuit in the case, claimed that the bones were that of one of their ancestors.

An alliance of five Washington-based tribes and bands, Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, Wanapum and Colville had sought repatriation of the remains for burial. The DOI says that the next step most likely will be DNA testing to see if a link to a specific tribe can be found. If not, Kennewick Man could remain in the custody the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the Columbia River.

However, the Corps earlier had tried to return the remains to Indian tribes for burial, but was blocked by various lawsuits as the multifaceted wrangle mushroomed. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), remains pre-dating Columbus’ arrival in 1492 are considered to be native and therefore returned to appropriate tribes for burial.

The Background

An interesting article about a sculptor's recreation of how Kennewick Man looked appeared in the Feb. 10, 1998 Tri-City Herald (Washington). This work is shared with that of archaeologist James Chatters, who seems determined to use Kennewick Man to prove that the First Peoples of the Americas were not the First Peoples, and that indeed, this continent originally belonged to the Europeans.

Frankly, I don't think his theory is worth a hill of beans, unless you're trying desperately to overboil a stale brew that diminishes the validity of Indian cultures, history, legal & treaty rights (the latter, of course, are based on the European model of land ownership and deed), and hence, eventually, our status as a unique people. If, indeed, Kennewick Man can be "proven" to be European, we might then ask these simple questions:
Is it possible that some hardy explorer died while exploring some new place? Does one set of artifacts, picked over in a political context, then stand for entire groups of colonists? Is the new scientific standard now to be "the .01% sample rules, let's throw away the consistent 99.9% portion of the data?"

Hmmmmm. Also, I'd like to point out that Chatters bases his work heavily on radiocarbon dating, which requires a personal belief system that says the rating's "set point" for calculation absolutely is correct, with no chance for any mistakes a few decades (or centuries) one way or another. Which leads us to ask: how many scientific theories of say, the 1700's and 1800's were proven to be totally correct? Now, that would make a topic for a great science term paper!

Be that as it may, here's one simple truth, expressed well some time ago by Shakespeare: "There is a history in all men's lives". (King Henry IV). Kennewick Man has his history, which includes Chatters' own finding of a Cascade projectile point in his pelvis. If Kennewick Man was shot, and he was part of other European racial stock already in place here (instead of being an explorer), then we have to ask two more simple things:
1) why was he shot by his own people?
2) If there were others of his kind here, why were they using a projectile point identified with Indian cultures in many places across a very wide expanse of territory?

Which then leads us, logically enough, to ask:
Well, if indeed, Kennewick Man proves that the Europeans had spread out on this continent, and all those arrowheads in the Americas were from European settlements, then why haven't we found more European-style artifacts from European-style settlements?

After all, there are antiquities galore in Europe; so it seems sensible to me that if the Europeans were the progenitors of this continent then they should have something more to show for it. And, if someone, ill-served by simple and logical questions, wishes to canter back into the misty, misty dawn and say "well, this continent was settled by Europeans but so far back that it was pre-artifact discoveries in England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, Italy,etc. etc.," then we have to ask these related question:
What was it about this continent that forced the same racial stock to develop so differently from say, the Irish Celtic peoples? Why so different from the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans, the Welsh? What was it in this lush, fertile land that ensured that Europeans who came here pre-normal-archaeological-antiquity developed only to what archaeologists (somewhat contempuously) call "the Stone Age?"

No matter which way the archaeologists want to roll dem bones, it's pretty hard to take one skeleton and create an entire new "science" of human existence and cultures. Perhaps we should again, refer to Shakespeare, for this is, ultimately, about one man. And somehow, I think that this one man, who ages ago, lived and died, deserves to have a final, private resting place, and to be placed there with dignity and respect. Those remains aren't a "scientific artifact," they're another human being who deserves to be more than the pestle in someone else's political mortar.

Here's where NAGPRA and the 1990 laws come in. It took Indian tribes, using that legal protection, to finally gain some respect and protection for Kennewick Man. Based on several tribes' requests, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has placed Kennewick Man in secured storage pending legal resolution of the battles over the bones. Mr. Chatters, of course, believes that he and others somehow have the right to use those human remains as they deem fit.

Let's declare Kennewick Man "human" and provide him with the respect offered in simple interrment.

My thanks to Phil Minthorn, Cayuse/Nez Perce, for alerting me to the Tri-City Herald article.

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Last update: 1/13/2000