LEE HOCHBERG: It's been almost five years since James Chatters made what he thought would be the discovery of a lifetime -- Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old human skeleton.
JAMES CHATTERS: This is one of the most complete ancient skeletons ever found. Remarkably good condition. It truly is like being visited by somebody from another era.
LEE HOCHBERG: Instead, Chatters has been visited by some complex issues of this era. The emotional debate that's raged ever since the finding of the skeleton, over who owns it, was heard in an Oregon federal court today. Kennewick Man was discovered at a summer boating festival in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996, on federal property in the shallows of the Columbia River.
JAMES CHATTERS: What immediately struck me was how long it is and how prominent the forward position of the brow is.
LEE HOCHBERG: Its 9,000-year-old skull -- as seen in this mold -- didn't look like that of a Native American. It was longer, more like the skulls of Polynesians. That challenged the scientific theory that Indians were the first to inhabit North America. They're believed to have come here via the Bering land bridge from northeast Asia. Some scientists now think Kennewick Man might have come earlier, from southeast Asia.
JAMES CHATTERS: From a scientific point of view alone, he's just an absolute treasure.
LEE HOCHBERG: But as scientists exulted over the find, Native Americans who live on these nearby hills in Washington and Oregon, cried foul.
ARMAND MINTHORN: These sacred remains should not be a product for data.
LEE HOCHBERG: Five tribes argued Kennewick Man is their ancestor, and rather than being studied, should be returned to them for burial. Armand Minthorn of the Umatilla tribe says in tribal culture, the dead stay connected to their physical remains and disturbing them upsets the moral fabric of the world.
ARMAND MINTHORN: Sacred human remains are not artifacts. They are what they are -- sacred -- and they are our ancestral remains, and they need to be treated as such.
LEE HOCHBERG: There is federal law directing what to do with newly discovered bones. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection Act, or NAGPRA, requires that ancient human remains found on federal lands be repatriated or given back to Native Americans for burial. Congress passed that law in response to Native American fury that 200,000 of their sacred remains had been unearthed by white men to be traded and sold like commodities. America's first archaeologist, Thomas Jefferson, lionized Indians, but wrote "the dead have no rights."
NAGPRA tried to remedy that. A month after Kennewick Man's discovery, the government directed he be turned over to the tribes. The question is, was NAGPRA intended to cover bones that are 9,000 years old? Anthropologists like Rob Bonnichsen say absolutely not.
ROB BONNICHSEN: It really is to reunite skeletal remains with tribal peoples where there can be a demonstrated cultural affiliation. But the question is, is Kennewick Man even related to modern-day peoples?
LEE HOCHBERG: Bonnichsen heads Oregon State University's Center for the Study of the First Americans. He and seven other scientists filed suit in federal court to stop the repatriation. Kennewick Man was put in storage as the scientists argued they have a right to study him. Interior Department scientists have conducted DNA tests on the skeleton to try to find a relationship to the modern-day Indians who live on the Columbia plateau, but the tests were inconclusive. Under NAGPRA, the next step is to try to find any historic or linguistic evidence that links them to the time of Kennewick Man.
ARMAND MINTHORN: And this mammoth tooth was found...
LEE HOCHBERG: The Umatilla tribe submitted as proof legends its elders have passed down through the generations.
ARMAND MINTHORN: I have oral histories within my tribe that go back 10,000 years. I know where my people lived, where they died, where they hunted, where they fished and where they were buried, because my oral histories tell me that.
LEE HOCHBERG: The government asked anthropologists like Western Washington University's Daniel Boxberger to examine those oral histories.
DANIEL BOXBERGER: I became quickly convinced that there's a collective memory on the plateau that goes back very far. Some of the oral traditions speak of such times as when the land was covered with snow and ice about 10,000 years ago.
LEE HOCHBERG: Based on such testimony, the Interior Department ruled last autumn that today's natives are culturally connected to Kennewick Man, so its skeleton should be returned to them. Scientists were stunned by the decision.
JAMES CHATTERS: It's very easy to say, well, my elders told me. And I can tell you my elders told me that I was descended from Prince John. Where do we stop? If the Indian tribes believe that every skeleton is sacred and should be back in the ground, does that apply to all of them in the world?
LEE HOCHBERG: If a skeleton were found that's 100,000 years old, would that also be your ancestor?
ARMAND MINTHORN: It would be my ancestor. My elders have told me that we can speak to how this world was created, so if there was a skeleton that was 100,000 years old, we would still claim it, because we were created here.
ROB BONNICHSEN: Scientists and knowledgeable people are being asked to accept decisions based on faith; the faith that these remains really belong to these people, even though they're 9,000 years old and there's no way to make that connection.
LEE HOCHBERG: The case Bonnichsen brought to court today argues scientists have a First Amendment right to obtain information about American history. But some say it's time to give weight to versions of history that aren't straight science. Seattle journalist Roger Downey, who wrote a book on Kennewick Man, says the court will consider how much scientists have a right to know.
ROGER DOWNEY: The right to know -- it sounds great. But you have to balance things like respect for the dead, respect for your living fellow man, with the abstract possibility that at some point in the future you might learn something which would get you a paper placed in the "Journal of the American Anthropological Society."
LEE HOCHBERG: Native Americans fear the case will set a bad precedent. If these remains aren't covered by NAGPRA, the next ones found might not be either. The scientist plaintiffs say the case already has had a stifling effect on archeologists who are hesitant now to study bones. Bonnichsen says what's at stake in the case is who controls America's history.
ROB BONNICHSEN: This case is significant because it's pushing the law to gain control over the past. You know, it's a question... it becomes a power game at a certain point. Who controls the past?
ROGER DOWNEY: This is supposed to be a populist, multi-voice society that we live in. So, when Rob talks about it raising the question of who owns history, he's quite right. He doesn't own it anymore.
LEE HOCHBERG: The story that began 9,000 years ago isn't likely to end with today's court hearing. Both sides have promised to appeal.