|THE FIGHT FOR KENNEWICK MAN|
January 3, 1997
A 9,000-year-old skull, called Kennewick Man, that was found in a Washington state river has created a stir between the local Indian tribe and archaeologists. Both groups claim the rights to the bones and aren't about to back down. Rod Minott reports.
ROD MINOTT: For years, anthropologist Jim Chatters has quietly hunted for historical artifacts in Southeastern Washington.
JIM CHATTERS, Anthropologist: That's quite a layer of ash.
ROD MINOTT: But lately that peace has been disturbed by a bitter dispute over some ancient bones.
JIM CHATTERS: Well, what would ordinarily have been the find of a lifetime has been something of a nightmare.
ROD MINOTT: That nightmare began last July here on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, with the discovery of a human skeleton. During a hydroplane race, Will Thomas, a spectator, stumbled on the remains while wading in the water.
|A human skull|
WILL THOMAS: And I saw something that looked like a rock, a round rock, and I kind of jokingly said to Dave, "Here, look, I found a human skull." And I reached down, and it felt pretty round, and it was kind of heavy, and it was kind of stuck in the mud a little bit. And I pulled it out, and held it up, and I saw those teeth there, and we saw a human head here. And so we were just stunned.
ROD MINOTT: So were investigators when they later dug up a skeletal body that was nearly complete. The bones were that of a middle-aged man who stood about five feet nine inches tall, and it soon became clear to forensic experts this was a rare skeleton. Bone samples dated the skeleton, known as Kennewick Man, at 9,300 years, one of the oldest and best preserved human skeletal remains ever discovered in North America. Jim Chatters examined the remains at the request of the Coroner's Office. These photographs of the bones were taken by him. They're among the few images of a skeleton that have been released to the public. Chatters noticed that the skull appeared more Caucasian-like than Indian.
JIM CHATTERS: Some of the key things--one that you can't see because this is almost a 3/4 view--is that the skull is very long and very narrow. It has very high, round eye sockets. The modern native population, they tend to be square. The orbits tend to be square. The orbits tend to be square and a little bit lower in proportion to the width. This is the broken edge here, and that's the rounded base.
ROD MINOTT: CAT Scan pictures verified a stone spearhead was imbedded in the man's pelvis.
JIM CHATTERS: It came in from his right side just about like this, straight in, went right through here, and into the bone inside right there.
ROD MINOTT: The problems for scientists like Jim Chatters began when Indian tribes here in the Kennewick area claimed the skeleton as an ancestor. Indian leaders said the remains belonged to them and demanded the bones be returned for immediate burial and without further scientific study. Indian leaders argued they were legally entitled to the bones under a 1990 federal law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It requires remains to be returned if they are Indian or somehow culturally affiliated. The act was passed to protect American Indian graves which in years past were frequently stripped of artifacts by scientists, hobbyists, and museums.
ARMAND MINTHORN, Umatilla Indian Tribe: It was very bad. There was no sensitivity at all for artifacts and/or human remains before this law was passed.
ROD MINOTT: Armand Minthorn is a tribal leader for the Umatilla Indians.
ARMAND MINTHORN: There was outright total disrespect for the artifacts in that they were subjected to black marketing, also Native American remains were subject to black marketing.
ROD MINOTT: Minthorn says any scientific study of ancient remains would be disrespectful of the dead.
ARMAND MINTHORN: These remains are sacred to us, just like with the non-Indians. In their religion, their bible or the things that they use in their religion on the altar, those things are sacred to them. These remains are the same. They are very sacred to us, and they should be left alone and reburied as soon as possible.
ROD MINOTT: But anthropologists say scientific study, including DNA testing of Kennewick Man, may offer important answers on how the North American continent was settled. Many scientists believe that 12,000 years ago early migrations occurred across the Bering Sea by a land bridge.
JIM CHATTERS: What the find says is that the people who first came into the new world looked different than we thought. They have characteristics that are similar to those of modern Caucasian, but the races as they existed nine thousand, ten thousand, twelve, thirteen thousand years ago, when people were crossing the land bridge were probably configured very differently. We would probably not find these races that long ago.
ROD MINOTT: But many Indians in the Columbia River area reject theories that there was a land bridge, or that their ancestors migrated from Asia. They say their oral histories show they've always been on the North American continent.
ARMAND MINTHORN: And we as Indian people know that we have been here since time began. We didn't come across no land bridge. We have always been here.
ROD MINOTT: Initially, the federal government sided with the tribes. The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land where the bones were found, said it would return the remains for burial, but that triggered an outcry by scientists who filed suit in federal district court.
ALAN SCHNEIDER, Attorney for Anthropologists: This is the amount of paperwork that this case has generated, all of this here, plus all of these. This takes about two months.
ROD MINOTT: Attorney Alan Schneider represents eight anthropologists who are seeking to block return of the skeleton until scientists have a chance to study it.
ALAN SCHNEIDER: We do not believe that the Army Corps properly determined that these remains are within the scope of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Action, that, in fact, the evidence in hand indicates that this individual is probably not Native American within the meaning of the statute. So that's the first nature of our claim. The second claim that we have is that the Army Corps' refusal to permit scientific study of the skeleton is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.
ROD MINOTT: Schneider also says the Indian Graves Protection Law is too ambiguous and fails to define many terms, including cultural affiliation.
ALAN SCHNEIDER: I do not think that this statute was designed by Congress to reach remains that are 9300 years old and that have no established cultural or kin relationship to existing Native American people.
ROD MINOTT: But the Umatillas insist the skeleton is an ancestor because it was found on land where the tribe has historic and legal claims. Journalist John Stang has written extensively about the dispute over Kennewick Man.
JOHN STANG, Reporter, Tri-City Herald: This area, the tri-city area which is in Southeastern Washington, was a crossroads of several Indian tribes. The Indians buried their dead near the rivers. And we're at the intersection of three rivers here, the Snake River, the Columbia River, and a smaller river called the Yakima River. And so this is a prime spot where Indians live, and where Indians lived, they also died and were buried.
ROD MINOTT: While the courts sort out this dispute, the Corps of Engineers is making sure no one gets a look at the skeleton. The agency has locked the remains inside a vault at this government lab and refuses to allow access to anyone. Dutch Meier of the Corps says even photographs are forbidden.
|Desecration of remains|
DUTCH MEIER, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Any examination handling photography, videography could be perceived as a desecration of those remains, and as long as we have responsibility for them, we're taking very conservative interpretations of our responsibilities.
ROD MINOTT: In recent weeks the Corps of Engineers has also backed off from turning Kennewick Man over to Indian tribes immediately. The agency now says it needs more time to consider several new plans on the skeleton, among them a California-based religious group which believes the bones may be that of a white Northern European ancestor. Chatters says he's upset Kennewick Man is fueling racial politics.
JIM CHATTERS: I'm really incensed by that. I'm incensed by the fact that this individual is being used to promote racial politics when the lesson I think he brings to us is that race doesn't mean very much; that we're all essentially one people, and separateness is not going to get us any place.
ROD MINOTT: Chatters and others say the Indian Graves Protection Act is being used to halt numerous other archaeological studies around the country as well. The case of Kennewick Man may very well set a legal precedent on how all such digs are handled in the future.