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Kennewick Man

Kennewick Man Can Be Studied, Court Rules

Scientists may study the Kennewick Man -- 9,200-year-old remains found in Washington state -- despite the objections of some American Indian tribes, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Northwestern tribes consider the bones sacred and want to bury them. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with a lower court that found that federal grave-protection law does not apply because there is no evidence connecting the remains with any existing tribe.

I lean toward the tribes' side on this issue, on the grounds of restoring confidence between archaeologists and Native Americans. But I think the worst damage is done not by who gets to keep the bones in the end, but by the fact that it had to be settled in an adversarial courtroom process.

The court case seems to confirm the tribes' underlying fears about what the issue means. They have an understandable concern that archaeologists are trying to appropriate the status of legitimate interpreters of their heritage. This was amplified in the Kennewick case by the fact that the skeleton didn't look like modern Native Americans -- it looked, according to early reports, like a white person (Patrick Stewart to be exact). While scientists have backed off the use of the word "caucasoid" and the related implication that Kennewick man is non-Indian (and perhaps the tribes will be pleasantly surprised at the final scientific verdict), in the public imagination the idea constitutes a threat to radically change the perception of Native American history and legitimacy. The court ruling relied on Western-scientific ideas of what constituted a relationship between the skeleton and the tribes, rather than the tribes' judgement of what is culturally significant. The tribes' position is doubtless politically motivated, as a win in the Kennewick case would have created a strong legal precedent for their control over the past.


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