The Color Line: The Great White Myth of Kennewick Man





Mr. Berger is the former editor of the Seattle Weekly.

Five years ago this July, an ancient skeleton was found on the banks of the Columbia River during a hydroplane race near Kennewick, Washington. When the bones turned out to be a major archaeological find, the remains of a 9,000 year-old prehistoric man, a political, legal, cultural, and racial battle ensued. Just who was Kennewick Man, who owned his bones, and what should be done with them?

The Indians and Federal government have argued that the law—specifically, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—gives local tribes, including the Umatilla, Colville, Yakama, and Nez Perce, the right to have the bones, and the right to dispose of them in any way they choose. The Indians have dubbed Kennewick Man “the Ancient One” and claim the right to rebury him according to their traditional practices with or without further study. But a group of prominent scientists has disagreed, choosing instead to challenge the law in Federal court, where a ruling is expected later this summer. They want to study the bones, which they argue are potentially of great scientific value. They also argue that Kennewick Man is so old, he cannot be properly affiliated with any modern-day tribe. In essence, they say, Kennewick Man is no Indian—even if he might be a native American.

While no one has argued that Kennewick Man is—or was-- a Native American in the modern sense, the general consensus is that today’s Indians have all descended from North America’s early inhabitants, the paleo-Indian hunters who came across the land bridge from Asia after the last Ice Age and slowly populated the continent. But part of the scientific interest in Kennewick Man stems from the fact that long-held notions about how the Americas were populated are being revised: There is now substantial evidence that there may have been many migrations during and between ice ages, going back not just 12,000 or so years ago, but perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 years. Kennewick Man and his ilk may be part of a much more complicated story that we don’t know much about yet. Some have suggested that these early immigrants to the Americas may have come not only on foot but by skin boat, and there is some evidence—tool designs, for example-- that suggests some may have shared their origins with inhabitants of a prehistoric Europe.

This last possibility has added major fuel to the Kennewick Man fire. The first scientist to examine the bones, anthropologist James Chatters, reported that Kennewick Man’s skull exhibited “caucasoid” characteristics—a politically charged word that many interpreted to mean “Caucasian,” or “white.” Indeed, Chatters says that he at first thought he was inspecting the skeleton of a white settler. The possibility that 9,000 years ago, white men were wandering around the Americas fed both the controversy and public interest—even though no one credible was explicitly making the claim that Kennewick Man was a white man (though the Asatru Folk Assembly, a Northwest neo-pagan group associated with white supremacists, also sued over the bones). It didn’t help matters when Chatters released an image reconstructing Kennewick Man’s face that showed him to be the spitting image of British actor Patrick Stewart, famous for playing starship captain Jean-Luc Picard on the “Star Trek Next Generation” TV series. Funnily enough, Vine Deloria, Jr. has pointed out that Kennewick Man/Picard is also the spitting image of an 1833 portrait of Chief Black Hawk. In any case, Chatters’s words and images had indelibly set the image in peoples’ minds that Kennewick Man was a Caucasian—or at the very least, a proto-white man rather than a proto-Indian.

That bit of mystery suggested that the scientists who wanted to study Kennewick Man and sample his DNA had a valid reason for doing so—to see if he was white or not—and made the Indian opposition look as if it was trying to mount a cover-up. For the Indians’ part, not only were white scientists trying to desecrate the remains of one of their distant ancestors, but they were blatantly trying to undermine Native American identity and beliefs—which include a mythology that doesn’t recognize that their ancestors were migrants from anywhere including Asia, let alone Europe.

When the Elizabethans began looking for historical justifications for their expansionist plans-you know it as the British Empire-their wisest men cited as precedents the story of King Arthur, who supposedly sent a large expedition into the Arctic regions which never returned but was thought to have survived and maybe colonized unknown lands.

Native American skepticism about science is understandable. White science claims to be the antithesis of mythology—but what is a hypothesis? It is a mini-scientific myth, a for-instance or a what-if that suggests we try a truth on for size until it no longer fits. Many of the questions science asks itself –many of the positions it posits for testing—come from deeply rooted cultural and political beliefs. In the nineteenth century, scientists believed that racial characteristics were all-important, and that the study of bones would tell them what we all needed to know about each race—including why others were inferior. That science has been thoroughly discredited, but not until hundreds of thousands of Indian bones had been robbed from graves, collected from bounty hunters, measured and stored in museums—most of them without the permission of the individuals, families, and tribes involved. David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History in New York, last year wrote a superb book on the sordid history of archaeology and Native Americans, appropriately titled Skull Wars. In light of this background, it’s difficult to suggest that anyone approaching Kennewick Man in the name of science would be doing so without having—or being thought to have--a larger agenda. And when that agenda explicitly includes re-looking at the origins of Native Americans, one can understand why the debate around Kennewick Man has been so volatile.

I admit even I was thrilled that he might have been some kind of wandering Norseman who found his way across the ice mass from Norway to Greenland and down through Canada into the Columbia River Basin. What person named"Knute" wouldn't be?

What has been lost in much of the debate around Kennewick Man is the white man’s own mythology. The idea that the Kennewick bones may have belonged to a white man doesn’t simply spring only from innocent scientific curiosity, but also from very old impulses that have resonated since 1492—perhaps longer. For five centuries, there has been a lingering desire to establish that Europeans or others with whom they identified (Biblical peoples) were here before the Indians—or, that whites in fact are the Indians. Call it The Great White Myth, one as durable as Eden or El Dorado. Some whites are not merely content with having taken the continent, they want to colonize its history.

After the European “discovery” of America, there was much speculation about the people who lived here. There was also a fascination in the late Renaissance with “recovered knowledge,” the belief that the ancients had secreted away wisdom that would be of great benefit today, helping to usher in a new age or renewal, the “great instauration” as Sir Francis Bacon termed it. In that context, the peoples of the New World could in fact be an older version of ourselves. Were they outcasts from the Biblical Eden? Were they survivors of Atlantis, Plato’s lost continent? Were they remnants of the Lost Tribes of Israel or survivors of the Great Flood?

When the Elizabethans began looking for historical justifications for their expansionist plans—you know it as the British Empire—their wisest men cited as precedents the story of King Arthur, who supposedly sent a large expedition into the Arctic regions which never returned but was thought to have survived and maybe colonized unknown lands. There was the voyage of the Irish monk Brendan. And there was the legend of the Welsh Prince, Madoch, who is said to have established a colony in America somewhere near today’s Mobile, Alabama in the year 1170. The colony moved inland, and was lost, but for centuries afterward reports of so-called white or Welsh Indians who were light skinned and blue-eyed filtered out of the continent. The Mandans were said to be descended from the prince’s people; the Cherokees had heard of them; on maps, they were referred to as the “White Paduchas.” If you think that’s farfetched, at least one of the best minds of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not. When Thomas Jefferson sent the first American scientific expedition across the continent, he personally asked Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for them. When the explorers encountered the Salish-speaking Flatheads, they noted their language carefully, believing its guttural tones to possibly be evidence of vestigial Welsh. Some members of the expedition were sure they had found the Welsh Indians at last.

As the continent was settled, so was the myth of the Welsh Indians. They were never found, though stories about them moved with the frontier—the last one placing them somewhere in Northern British Columbia. Perhaps they were simply wiped out by smallpox or one of the other innumerable plagues that depopulated the countryside with the European advance. More likely they simply represented a perpetual mirage in the European mind that a kind of deeper, more genuine claim could be made of the land. We were not conquering America—we were reconquering it, not unlike the way Europeans reconquered the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors—a task the Spanish completed the same year Columbus bumped into the Americas.

Today, we’ve explored all the lonesome bits and pieces: there is no place for the Welsh Indians to be hiding, except in history. The evidence is conclusive that the Vikings were in North American about 500 years before Columbus. It shouldn’t be surprising that others are trying to push the white window back even further. In the mid-1990s, the Canadian writer Farley Mowat, an early advocate of the idea that the Norse beat Columbus here, wrote a book called The Farfarers which suggests that a people he calls the “Alban”—which derives from Albion, the ancient Greek name for Britain which means “white”—came to North American 500 years before the Vikings. In fact, he says, they settled and occupied the Canadian Arctic, probably before the Inuit arrived. White men, in other words, may have been the first Eskimos!

Of course, there’s very little proof the Alban ever existed in Europe, let alone North America. Mowat’s book is filled with historical musings backed by some archaeological curiosities, but mostly it’s projection wrapped in a big wad of wishful thinking. It’s that wishful thinking that has resurfaced in the case of Kennewick Man. I admit even I was thrilled that he might have been some kind of wandering Norseman who found his way across the ice mass from Norway to Greenland and down through Canada into the Columbia River Basin. What person named “Knute” wouldn’t be? But it is, I think, part of an urge we have to look at the place we call home and see our reflections in it, reflections like those in endless carnival funhouse infinity mirrors: the past is us, going on forever.

Kennewick Man offers an incredibly rich opportunity for everyone to seek these reflections for themselves. Native Americans can cloak him with a wise, spiritual persona that reflects their ways—traditions that may not have come into existence until 5,000 years after Kennewick Man was dead and buried. Scientists can pose as wise men too, standing up against Native American “creationism” in the name of the truth, yet perpetuating their own myth of objectivity. And Euro-Americans can tap into a longstanding yearning to belong in a place we took from its inhabitants, a land dripping with the irony of a history we hope will prove that whites are the real “native” Americans, as if that would justify all we have done.


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Ed - 6/25/2001

Knute, you're behind the curve on Kennewick Man. He's now thought to be more like a South Asian or perhaps a Polynesian than anything else. But that assessment is based only on anatomical characteristics, not on DNA analysis -- and right there is the best argument for studying the bones using modern techniques, and, more importantly, for storing them safely for future study using methods yet to be developed. The alternative is to hand them over to be destroyed by people whose motives are worse than dubious, people who seem to be motivated by a confused belief in a jimcrack mythology they cribbed from A. L. Kroeber and George Bird Grinnell. The 1990 repatriation act may be a kindly-meant law, but it's badly written, so badly that it gives mean-hearted ignorance equal time with honest, well-informed inquiry into the truth. How many Indians do you suppose really support something so misguided?

While I'm at it: Don't repeat that stale piece of propaganda equating folktales with science. No thinking person accepts that, and if you try to maintain that stance you'll be refuted humiliatingly.

In Europe, they do these things better: Archaeological finds are public property, and nobody, repeat nobody has the right to destroy them.

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