Kennewick chronicles: research, ritual, rascality

The Argument

The potentially most important anthropological discovery in Western Hemisphere history is held hostage to politics.


November 18, 2001|By Richard M. Sudhalter | Richard M. Sudhalter,Special to the Sun

There must be times, plenty of them, when Jim Chatters deeply rues the day he ever took Floyd Johnson's phone call. But then, neither man had any way of anticipating the firestorm of controversy, contumely and outright chicanery it would ignite.

At issue was the very foundation of modern understanding of how, and by whom, the North American continent was first populated -- and, behind the scenes, some less-than-savory aspects of U.S. government defense policy.

Chatters is a forensic anthropologist, with a small practice in Kennewick, one of three small cities straddling the Columbia River in the southern midsection of Washington state. The call from Johnson, coroner for Benton County, reported that a couple of college students had found some skeletal remains, probably human, in riverbank mud.

He brought the find to Chatters, who soon discerned that the bones were indeed human -- a man, perhaps in his mid-50s -- and perhaps of great antiquity. He set to work doing as thorough an analysis as possible, soliciting second opinions from respected colleagues before reaching a preliminary conclusion: the remains might be up to 9,500 years old.

Nor was that all. Various characteristics, notably the shape and features of the skull, resembled no recognizable Native American tribe. Scarcely suspecting what he was about to unleash, Chatters announced the find, speculating that the remains appeared "caucasoid."

The word exploded like a gunshot through the small, fractious community of archaeologists and physical anthropologists -- and Jim Chatters found himself caught in a noisily nasty struggle between the imperatives of scientific investigation and the full weight of Native American spiritual history and ceremony. Charge and countercharge have since reverberated through the courts, enraging various Indian tribes, and throwing into disarray all theory about the prehistory of the Western Hemisphere.

Newspapers and other mass media were quick to pounce on Chatters' use of "caucasoid," with reporters taking an easy inferential leap: as one article put it, "was someone here before the Native Americans?" Publications great and small rang variations on the theme, some even using the disclosure to question the legitimacy of the gambling casinos, tax breaks and other compensations accorded Indian tribes in recent decades.

Such Indian rights activists as Armand Minthorn reacted with fury. "Our oral history goes back 10,000 years," he declared. "We know how time began and how Indian people were created. They can say whatever they want, the scientists. They are being disrespectful." Some scientists concurred. "Instead of trying to forge a mutual interest with Native Americans in discovering who these ancestors of us all were," anthropologist Laurence G. Straus complained, "we throw it in their faces that they are not the original Americans after all, when that is the one thing they have in their cultures to hang on to in the face of the overwhelming dominance of ours."

Behind the agitation over "Kennewick Man" stands a long and bitter history of "appropriation" of Indian remains and artifacts for laboratories and museums, and for more than a few private collections. It led, in 1990, to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), stipulating that all remains found on lands claimed by American Indian tribes be returned to those tribes for sacred reinterment.

But no one seemed to know how NAGPRA applied to the bones found on the Columbia riverbank if no physical kinship to any known tribe could be established. In an act that both puzzled and enraged scientists, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, officially charged with enforcing the Act, seized the Kennewick bones and announced it was handing them to a confederation of Pacific Northwest tribes, including the Umatilla and Yakima.

The Corps complicated things still further in March 1998, by dropping tons of rock and soil on the discovery site, then covering it with plants whose quick-rooting properties would prevent further excavation. Presumably carried out on direct orders from the Clinton White House, the move was widely interpreted as a gesture of appeasement to the tribes on whose ancestral lands the specimens were found.

"Science vs. tradition," was how one newspaper headline portrayed an apparent conflict between anthropological investigation and tribal demands for ceremonial burial. Seattle journalist Roger Downey develops the theme in Riddle of the Bones (Copernicus, 288 pages, $25), depicting a "permanent state of tension and distrust" among scientists, Indians, and the Corps of Engineers, but never quite explains the Army's haste in confiscating the Kennewick find and compromising the riverbank site.

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