Within a few weeks, a federal judge is expected to rule on the fate of what Indians call the Ancient One, the 9,300-year-old skeleton also known as Kennewick Man.
I hope the bones of this man can be put back in the ground and left in peace. As editor of a newspaper for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, Ive been covering this story and watching the media frenzy for the last five years. Ive seen scientists portray the tribes as arrogant obstructionists trying to control history. Lost is the issue of ethical boundaries that scientists must stay within to explore the past.
For more than a century, scientists have invaded Native American burial grounds, digging up graves and gathering artifacts for exhibits and collections still gathering dust. They have scraped the marrow from the very fiber of ancestral spirits. Some argue that we need to know as much as possible about our past. Well, Indians must be included in the definition of our past.Protecting gravesWhen Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, a grievous wrong began to be righted. The law restored to tribes the basic human right of protecting their ancestors. Now, what has been characterized as a debate between scientists and Native Americans boils down to a test of the act protecting graves.
Congress intended NAGPRA to return the dignity and respect Native American human remains deserve. The law was not passed to provide an opportunity for scientists to study those same remains exhaustively before their repatriation. Nor was it intended that every repatriation be bogged down by technical academic debates about when tribes became indigenous or what Native American really means. The Umatillas — one of five Northwest tribes that claim cultural affiliation with the Ancient One — are demanding a voice in the treatment of their ancestors, whether they are in museums or still in the ground.
In their lawsuit, scientists asked the court for judicial review of a federal agencys decision. In fact, two federal agencies — the Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior — reached the same decision: Kennewick Man should go to the tribes because he is culturally affiliated with them. That decision was reached after the Interior Department created an administrative record of more than 22,000 pages over the course of three years.
Then last month in Portland, the scientists asked the judge to once again judicially review that decision. In arguing against that move, Christopher Burford, an attorney for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, asked the court to remember that these human remains are not the expression of any viewpoint. They do not express the views of the federal government, the tribes or the scientific community. They are the bones of a human being. These human remains are not a public record. They are the bones of a human being.Imperialist attitudeThe scientists and their attorneys have tried to characterize the tribes as irrational and anti-science. In fact, the Umatillas have created a Department of Natural Resources with more than 100 employees, including scientists with doctorates and masters degrees.
The scientists wanting to study the Ancient One claim that they are the sole authority on what the history of this continent is. This is an imperialistic attitude. It is exactly this attitude that NAGPRA sought to end, the practice of taking and studying Native American human remains without the consent of the descendants.
In the end, it does not matter what theory you subscribe to, whether you think the original occupants of this hemisphere arrived 20,000 years ago, 60,000 years ago or whether they were always here. Each is only a theory.
The scientists want to test their theories on Umatilla ancestors to solve their giant puzzle. The tribes only want to bury a man.Wil Phinney, editor of the Confederated Umatilla Journal, lives in Pendleton, Ore. He is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo.