Blogs > Cliopatria > Kennewick Man Can Stay Aboveground

Feb 6, 2004 2:10 am


Kennewick Man Can Stay Aboveground



Well good. A court of appeals has ruled that Kennewick man should be turned over to archaeologists for study rather than being reburied.

He's a neighbor of mine, old Ken guy. Not a close neighbor, to be sure; the Burke is a few miles away. But pretty close, and anyway I walk past the Burke often. I've thought of him many times over the past couple of years, wondering how the decision would go. Perhaps I ought to feel some sympathy for the people who want to bury him - but I don't. He's nine thousand years old. How many generations is that? Only think: if we go back twenty generations (taking us to about the 16th century) each of us would have a million great-great-etc-grandparents. Nine thousand years ago and one might as well think of a dandelion or a piece of tree bark as a relative.

A lot of anthropologists and archaeologists don't agree though. Both disciplines are sharply split over the issue, but I have no idea how the numbers fall out - if there's a majority for one side or the other or it's a toss-up. It would be interesting to know.


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Christopher Riggs - 3/14/2004

I thank Professors Dressner, Benson, and Chamberlain for their replies to my message. I regret being unable to respond earlier.

Prof. Dressner and Prof. Chamberlain touch on an important question: What criteria determine who is a “Native American” and who gets to make that determination? Is it a matter of genetic affiliation—that is, race—as Prof. Dressner suggests? It may well be that Kennewick Man’s DNA will show a genetic connection with ancient peoples in what is today Asia. But does that automatically make him “Asian,” and preclude any sort of cultural connection with Native peoples in what is today North America? What about geographic considerations? If the geographic location of skeletal remains is irrelevant for determining their affiliation/ancestry, then should we not simply declare everyone African? It seems to me that geographic location needs to be given at least some meaningful consideration in determining, however imperfectly, the ancestry of ancient peoples.

And what about cultural affiliation? We know, for example, that Indians sometimes adopted individuals from Europe and African into their societies, and those adoptees were considered full-fledged members of Native societies. (Such adoptions still occur today). Would DNA testing—that is, determining “Indian-ness” based on ideas about race--be able to provide evidence of those sorts of cultural connections? I am not disputing that DNA testing can be a useful tool, but I am suggesting it is of limited utility in terms of measuring the common cultural bonds that that connect certain groups of people together regardless of their genetic/racial lineage.

And with due respect, I think we have to ask whether an emphasis on using DNA to determine who was/is an Indian doesn’t at least somewhat benefit scientists and scholars, since it allows them, rather than Native peoples themselves, to determine who they are and who their ancestors are.

I am disturbed by Prof. Benson’s suggestion that Indian claims to Kennewick Man or to any human remains deserve little or no support because she doesn’t like the statements some Native Americans have expressed regarding science and the peopling of North America. There are federal laws, executive orders, court rulings, and the like that define the religious and property rights of Indians—and non-Indians. Does Benson believe that religious freedom and property rights and other protections should be subject to an ideological litmus test?

I suppose Prof. Chamberlain is right that declaring that most everyone who was in North America before 1492 an Indian is an imperfect standard. We should remember that Europeans and Euro-Americans essentially did consider the peoples who were in North America before 1492 as “Indians.” That is, Europeans and Euro-Americans assumed that those who preceded them were indigenous and held rights to the land, which could then be acquired through treaties, conquest, and the like. (The newcomers didn’t query Native peoples about how long they had been on the continent before signing a treaty.) It seems a little ironic that objections to using 1492 as the turning point date only come now that it might inconvenience or disadvantage members of the dominant, non-Indian culture.

I also agree with Chamberlain that there is not an exact system for establishing cultural connectedness between those in the present and those in earlier times. Yet, that does not seem to deter people from doing exactly that. The Puritan colonists of the 17th century certainly did not think of themselves as part of the United States, and certainly held a view of the world very different than most people living in North America today. Nevertheless, Puritans are routinely defined as part of United States history in textbooks, if for no other reason than they lived in what is today part of the United States. Is it really any more an “act of faith” to see Puritans as “Americans” than it is for Native Americans of the Northwest today to see Kennewick Man as their ancestor?

Prof. Chamberlain and Prof. Benson have accused Native Americans of being irrational and of demanding scientific evidence be suppressed or distorted to advance a supposed agenda. Unfortunately, Benson and Chamberlain fail to recognize that Native peoples’ concerns are understandable given the weaknesses in scientific arguments regarding Indian origins. For years we have been told that the Bering Strait Theory is the sole, unquestionable explanation for the origins of Indian peoples; any Native person who disagreed was dismissed as peddling “myths.” Now, however, it is increasingly clear, based on a growing body of archeological and other data, that the Bering Strait Theory offers at best an incomplete explanation for Native peoples’ origins. The reality is that Native Americans’ skepticism about Bering Strait—a supposedly “evidence-based hypothesis” —was correct. Perhaps Indians are entitled to be a bit skeptical when non-Indians accuse them of being irrational or anti-science anytime Native Americans fail to unquestionably accept anything scholars tell them

Such skepticism is even more understandable given that some scientists have distorted their own discipline to study Kennewick Man. Soon after Kennewick Man came to light, James Chatters and a few other scholars who wanted to prevent Kennewick Man from being returned to the tribes claimed that the skull was “Caucasian” not “Indian,” and thus the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) (1990) did not apply. This was a remarkably cynical strategy. First of all, Chatters should know that Native peoples had historically not used racial classification to determine their membership. If Chamberlain objects to projecting the more recent conception of “Indians” as a single group back into the past because peoples in the past didn’t see themselves that way, should we not also object to Chatters applying the more recent concept of race to early North American peoples who didn’t classify themselves in that way?

Second, Chatters made his assertions at the same time that the American Anthropological Association was urging the Census Bureau to drop questions about race because of the overwhelming evidence that race has no biological significance. Yet, Chatters’ attempt to apply a racial classification to Kennewick Man meant that race would be the determinant of Indians’ property and religious rights under NAGPRA and thus would be extremely significant. It certainly seems to me that Chatters is bending science to suit his own agenda.

Although Chatters eventually backed off of his claim that the skull was Caucasian, anti-Indian activists have seized on his arguments to claim that “Whites” were indigenous to North American and thus American Indians have no land rights. In light of this, why shouldn’t Indians be somewhat skeptical of the claims of scientists? What should Indians make of the fact that Benson and Chamberlain are so quick to criticize Indians but have nothing to say about scientists like Chatters?

Chamberlain compares the status of Indian religious beliefs to those of fundamentalist Christians. This allows Chamberlain and Benson to fit the struggle over Kennewick Man into a “Christian vs. Scientist” script, in which Native Americans play the role of the Catholics repressing Galileo or Tennessee fundamentalists repressing the teaching of evolution. But such a script fails to acknowledge that Native Americans, even in the early 21st century, do not have religious freedom according to the U.S. Supreme Court. Such an acknowledgement would raise key questions. If Indians do not enjoy one of the most fundamental freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, then how can they be so powerful as to repress scientific knowledge? To offset the fact that Native Americans have been denied Constitutional protection for their beliefs, should they have a stronger claim to Kennewick Man and other remains under NAGPRA and other laws? These are important questions, but the way the Kennewick Man debate has been framed, it is very difficult for there to be a serious public discussion about them.

Some additional points …

Yes, Prof. Dressner is right that gravesite excavations have provided important insights into early human societies. But we need to remember that such past “excavations” in North America have included the digging up of the graves of Indian massacre victims (and sometimes Indians who served as scouts for the Army) and shipping the skeletons (or sometimes the decapitated skull) to scientists who used the bones to “prove” that Indians were racially inferior to whites. Yes, scientists of that time probably saw such research as furthering human knowledge; their goals, however, were not simply to learn about the past but to provide a “scientific” basis for a particular point of view about race and white supremacy.

I also question the assertion that repatriation will significantly hinder the furtherance of human knowledge. In numerous cases, tribes and institutions have negotiated compromises that allowed scholars to study remains. Also, if there is such valuable knowledge to be gained from studying human material, why haven’t museums done more studies of the remains they have? In fact, the Smithsonian misplaced the remains of Ishi, the so-called “last of the Yahi,” resulting in a delay in their return. If I had something that would vastly expand my knowledge of humanity’s history, I can’t help but think I’d know where I put it.

Prof. Dressner is incorrect to suggest that tribes’ claim to remains is based on those remains being found on sacred ground. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act states that the remains only need to be on ground that the tribe is considered to have traditionally inhabited. It is also inaccurate to suggest that Native Americans “abandoned” their lands. They lost their lands because of warfare, forced removal, treaty agreements (often coerced), and the like.

There are problems with imposing a statute of limitation, as Dressner suggested, on the ability of Native Americans to reclaim their ancestors. Who decides what the time limit will be? Not everyone perceives time in the same way. For example, a “long time” may mean something very different to a historian, an anthropologist, a geologist, and an astronomer.


Oscar Chamberlain - 2/8/2004

A bad argument, indeed, to be in the middle of.

I understand the importance of tribes reestablishing control over their sacred spacies and ancestors remains. That makes particular sense, as Jon notes, when a clear tradition links the grounds and remains to the descendants.

However, the farther we go back in time and the older the remains, the more serious the questions this policy raises.

1. The idea of Native Americans as a single group is remarkably new--it's a 20th century idea, with antecedents in the alliances under Pontiac, Tecumseh and other great native leaders. That unity is, of course, a direct consequence of the perceptions and actions of Europeans as their decendants.

2. It is reasonable for Native Americans today to divide up reponsibility for sacred sites and ancestors graves geographically, according to which tribes now, or in recent history, controlled an area. After all, it was their conquest that shaped the situation. But this is not something that their ancestors would have recognized or understood.

3. The argument that all peoples in the Americas before 1492 (except for a few Scandanavians, perhaps) shoud be considered Native Americans becomes an act of faith the farther one goes back in time. What defines a Native? If he or she just arrived (or if their tribal group just arrived recently), does that make them Native?

4. Here I think Ophelia' concern has some justice. There are some Native Americans who argue for a separate creation of humanity in the Americas. This belief deserves as much respect as the fundamenatlist Christian belief in a swift creation of all species by a personal deity.

But I think few of us would bend scientific research so that it could not challenge the fundamentalist's beliefs. Yet that is what some (not all by any means) Native Americans and their supporters do demand.


Ophelia Benson - 2/7/2004

Fair point, Christopher Riggs. I realize all that, and that is why I said I would have had sympathy once. I have to admit, the Kennewick matter soured me a good deal. I probably do have less sympathy for even reasonable claims for repatriation than I once would have. But that's not to say I don't have any at all - despite the offhand tone of my post.

But I've heard and read some remarkably anti-intellectual, anti-rational statements about the Kennewick matter, to the effect that evidence-based hypotheses about how and when humans arrived in the Western hemisphere are just another story, the exact equivalent of Native American stories or myths or legends or oral histories, whatever you want to call them. I'm afraid I think that kind of equivalence is very dangerous.


Jonathan Dresner - 2/7/2004

Another argument I shouldn't get into the middle of....

Let's face it, if it were not for gravesite excavations, our knowledge of early human societies would be next to nothing. And perhaps it isn't, as Riggs suggests, an absolute good, but it certainly is good.

I'm more of a pragmatist than an idealist on this subject. I think it's very important to respect living traditions, particularly living traditions that have been abused as badly as the Native American societies. A lot of the artifact and remains "repatriation" is justified, even though a great deal of future study is being closed off. But the interests of advancing human knowledge suggest to me that there need to be practical limits on what can be reclaimed after the fact.

In fact, there's considerable disagreement, as I understand it, as to whether Kennewick Man is an ancestor of the highly mobile American tribes (a little DNA testing would go a long way to answering that and a lot of other questions). He wasn't recovered from a site currently identified as "sacred" ground (and I know that the traditional concept of sacred space was much more flexible and open than our modern geographic property concept, nonetheless there are places roughly identified as currently sacred and a lot more places that aren't), and we don't actually know to whom he is an ancestor (or a relative of an ancestor). 9000 years? He could be Japanese (I'm not kidding, by the way) or Ainu. Should we give him a Jomon-style burial?

I don't think it's unfair to the Native American tradition to suggest that there's a sort of statute of limitations on sacred space and ancestors abandoned for hundreds, if not thousands of years.


Christopher Riggs - 2/7/2004

Benson declares she has no sympathy for those—like me--who wish to see Kennewick Man returned to the tribes. By contrast, I have sympathy for her and those who wish to study Kennewick Man. I can appreciate the desire to learn from him. But, perhaps unlike her, I believe that the potential benefits of a quest for knowledge must consider the historical and contemporary context and be balanced against the human costs—in this case, the damage done to Indian peoples and cultures by not returning Kennewick Man to the tribes.

As difficult as it may be for Benson to accept, the Indians who seek Kennewick Man’s return have bona fide reasons.

There is a long and ugly history of members of the dominant culture dehumanizing Indians and treating their religions and cultures with contempt. Such contempt has been embodied in, among other things, the taking of Indian remains (grave-robbing) and religious objects in the name of science and profit. The U.S. government and private organizations also sought to eradicate tribal religions and cultures through policies and practices that prevented Indians from practicing their ways of life. In fact, the egregiousness of such practices have inspired laws intended to protect Indian religious and cultural beliefs, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). At the same time, restrictions on Indian religious and cultural freedom have been upheld by some relatively recent Supreme Court decisions—Lyng v. Northwest Indian Protective Assoc. (1988) and Oregon v. Smith (1990). Like it or not, an honest discussion of Kennewick Man requires that we consider the historical and contemporary context in order to better understand why at least some people don’t want Kennewick Man turned over to the scientists.

Sadly, Benson’s post offers no context, instead asserting that scientific study of the remains is an unquestioned good.

The fact is that there are tribal people who honestly view Kennewick Man as a human being who is their ancestor and whose physical remains—regardless of age—deserve to be treated in respectful manner as defined by tribal customs and religions. Why is this so hard to understand? Do not mainstream American cultural values include concern over the treatment of the remains of the dead? If not, then why spend money on embalming and elaborate caskets? In other words, denying tribes the opportunity to handle the remains in a religiously and culturally appropriate way harms Indian people and sets a precedent that could lead to harm being done to those of other religious and cultural traditions. Whether the potential scientific value of studying Kennewick Man outweighs that cost is one of the key issues raised by the case.

Sadly, Benson denies that such harm even might occur. Instead she shows her contempt for Indian cultures and religions with her “piece of bark” and “dandelion” comment. She should be able to make her point without denigrating and dehumanizing Native Americans and their belief systems. If she cannot, then perhaps it is her argument, rather than those of the tribes, that should be treated with skepticism.

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