'Kennewick' Case Fails to End Battle over Bones

A debate over human remains in the Pacific Northwest persists. Native Americans say studying or displaying the bones of their ancestors is disrespectful. Scientists contend that some older remains are evidence that other cultures inhabited the region.

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This summer, scientists expect to regain access to the famous skeleton known as Kennewick Man. The 9,000-year-old bones were locked up during a long legal fight between the scientists who want to study them and Indian tribes who want to rebury them. The scientists won the case last year when an appeals court ruled that a skeleton that old cannot be considered Native American. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle, that victory has not ended the dispute.

(Soundbite of train)

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

To the layman's eye, there's nothing remarkable about this grassy creek bed near the train tracks on the edge of Woodburn, Oregon. But when archaeologist Alison Stenger surveys the terrain, she gets a glimpse of life in 10,000 BC.

Ms. ALISON STENGER (Archaeologist): I imagine it as just being incredibly bucolic.

KASTE: Stenger has been excavating here for almost a decade.

Ms. STENGER: You can actually envision these large herds moving through and occasionally a giant predator bird going overhead.

KASTE: She's dug up the bones of six-foot high ground sloths and giant bison. And she's also found tantalizing traces of paleolithic Oregonians: human hairs, animal bones marked by cutting tools and leftovers.

Ms. STENGER: In our case, we have roasted buffalo toes. And so they probably munched on those and then lobbed them over the bank just as people do today.

KASTE: Stenger's hungry to know more about these ancient people. She believes they were not the ancestors of the Indian tribes who live here today. She says that's because the local terrain and climate have changed so much over the last 12,000 years.

Ms. STENGER: If you're used to hunting a certain type of animal, if you're used to gathering certain types of food products and the environment changes, you're going to go where the animals go, you're going to go where those food sources are, because that's how you know how to live. We have one population replacing another.

KASTE: This idea that North America was once home to different non-Indian populations is still considered a minority theory in archaeological circles. But it gained traction with the discovery in Washington state of Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton that did not have typical Indian characteristics. Stenger is glad that the courts have now allowed researchers to pick up where they left off with the Kennewick bones. But Northwestern Indian tribes do not share her enthusiasm.

Mr. ARMAND MINTHORN (Chairman, Cultural Committee, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla): It's not good for us.

KASTE: Armand Minthorn is chairman of the cultural committee of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla in Northeastern Oregon. He says scientists have no business studying any skeletons discovered on the tribe's traditional lands.

Mr. MINTHORN: These are our remains, and we should be the ones deciding, not them. And they should not be something for science, they should not be for unproven theories and they should not be for study.

KASTE: Minthorn led the tribe's failed attempt to claim Kennewick Man. Like many Northwestern Indians, he believes his ancestors have occupied this region since the dawn of time and that when ancestors' bones are dug up, the whole tribe suffers. During a Friday night powwow, members of the Umatilla tribe sing a traditional warrior song.

(Soundbite of warrior song)

KASTE: The song honors tribal members serving in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's a lot of American patriotism on display here. The Stars and Stripes show up in the beadwork on the dancers' costumes. These days, Indians are on relatively good terms with the government in Washington, DC, especially on the sensitive issue of ancient remains. During the Kennewick Man fight, the feds took the Indians' side, and they've also helped to repatriate thousands of other skeletons.

(Soundbite of backhoe)

KASTE: A backhoe digs a new grave for a batch of human remains just returned to the Umatillas by the Smithsonian Institution. These skeletons are undoubtedly tribal ancestors. They're only a couple of hundred years old, and they were dug up from traditional Umatilla burial islands in the Columbia River. Now under leaden Oregon skies, tribal elders watch as the desiccated remains are removed from plain shipping cartons and laid in the common grave. No recording is allowed here. Just as the tribal elders don't want their ancestors' bones on display on museums, they don't want their burial songs on the radio.

Unidentified Man: OK.

Ms. CECELIA BEARCHUM (Tribal Elder): ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Girl: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: OK.

Unidentified Girl: See you Monday.

KASTE: Cecelia Bearchum is a tribal elder who got up early to watch this reburial. She says when it comes to science, English-speaking people always forget their manners.

Ms. BEARCHUM: It would be just like if your mother or father was dug up and taken back to the Smithsonian to be studied. How would you feel?

KASTE: Not my mother and father. That would be disturbing.

Ms. BEARCHUM: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

KASTE: Would you feel differently if the remains were really old?

Ms. BEARCHUM: It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.

KASTE: It doesn't matter?

Ms. BEARCHUM: They're from here and they're brought there to be studied, and to us, that's not right.

KASTE: And this is the real sore point between the tribes and scientists today. In many ways, relations have improved since the passage in 1990 of a federal law giving tribes the right to claim their ancestors' remains. But the amity breaks down when tribes try to claim bones that are thousands of years old.

Mr. DOUG OWSLEY (Smithsonian Anthropologist): I think what we're engaging in right now is a haste to rebury these ancient remains.

KASTE: Smithsonian anthropologist Doug Owsley says some federal and state agencies have gone beyond the requirements of the law and are returning remains indiscriminately, even skeletons with no obvious link to existing tribes. In one case, an 8,000-year-old skeleton was reburied in a secret location before scientists could intervene. Owsley and others are especially worried about a recent move in the US Senate. A proposed change to the graves protection law would cause all indigenous remains to be automatically considered Native American, no matter how old.

Mr. OWSLEY: There's really a move to try and deal with cases like Kennewick or future discoveries, where it drops out the first criterion that you have to first show that they're Native American. And then it's an easier process to say, `Well, it doesn't need to be studied at all then.'

KASTE: Rob Roy Smith, an attorney who represented the Umatillas in the Kennewick fight, acknowledges that the tribes want this change. He says it would simply restore the intent of the law. When deciding if a skeleton is Native American, he says, courts must weigh cultural beliefs, as well as science.

Mr. ROB ROY SMITH (Attorney): Tribal members believe that they have simply been here. Their creation stories have them created from the coyote or from other animals that are indigenous to these places and have always been here. And, again, those stories have to be respected.

KASTE: That's not what archaeologist Alison Stenger wants to hear. At her 12,000-year-old site in Woodburn, she says she can't accept the idea that culture should trump science.

Ms. STENGER: What would change for American Indians based on the fact that somebody else was here earlier? The treaties are done. They have their own separate nation status. Why would that change? They were still here before we were. We just want to know who was here. It's part of our history.

KASTE: It's unclear whether Congress will expand the definition of Native American. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, introduced the change earlier this year. But he later retracted it after it started to generate controversy. His staff says it's still in consideration, but the senator now intends to hold hearings on the matter first. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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