Bones of Contention, by Brad Broberg

Part Three: Conflict Instead of Compromise

To many observers, the discovery of the spearpoint represented a crossroads that might have led to compromise instead of conflict. "If at first the tribe had been called in ... maybe there wouldn't have been this confrontation," says Eugene Hunn, a UW ethnobiologist.

Van Pelt agrees. "We have a specific process ... to do non-destructive studies in certain situations and this would have been one of them," he says. Instead, Chatters submitted a finger bone for carbon dating—a destructive test discouraged by federal law. Four weeks later, Chatters learned he was in possession of one of the oldest and most complete human skeletons ever found in North America.

Eugene Hunn, UW professor of anthropology

He may have spoken "a language related to the Yakama and the Umatilla," says UW Anthropology Professor Eugene Hunn. "You can say they are culturally affiliated by sharing a linguistic tradition." Photo by Jon Marmor.

It was an exciting revelation—one made all the more intriguing by Kennewick Man's lack of resemblance to modern Native Americans. His looks lend support to an emerging theory that humans did not arrive here in a single migration across a land bridge spanning the Bering Sea, but came in waves and from different regions.

To Chatters and many others, remains as ancient and physically dissimilar to contemporary Indians as Kennewick Man are outside the bounds of NAGPRA, which requires a preponderance of evidence showing an affiliation with an existing tribe in order to trigger repatriation.

The federal government disagreed. Soon after Chatters' startling press conference, it claimed Kennewick Man in the name of NAGPRA and announced it was considering repatriating the bones to an appropriate tribe. The rationale was simple. How could anyone who lived here 9,000 years ago not be considered a Native American?

Quickly, eight scientists sued for the right to study the bones. When the judge hearing the case asked the feds for more facts to justify repatriation, it became clear that Kennewick Man's legacy would be earned in court, not the lab. "This is a legal case, not a scientific case," says Downey. "It was never stated, but the court case was brought by the plaintiffs in hopes they could eviscerate or eliminate NAGPRA entirely."

Inspired by the need to redress the shameless robbing of Native American graves a century ago, NAGPRA does not provide much of a framework for deciding control of remains and artifacts thousands of years old. "The weakness in the law is the idea of antiquity and who gets to decide," says Laura Phillips, archaeology collection manager at the Burke.

Kennewick Man is the first test of the law, says Phillips. "This is certainly a precedent-setting case. Maybe they won't change the law, but they will look to this case (in the future)."

Hunn sees a certain irony in the judge's demand for additional facts. "In order to decide whether to study the remains," he says, "we have to study the remains." By now, says Hunn, much of what could be learned from Kennewick Man has been learned thanks to court-ordered tests and studies.

Van Pelt admits many things the tribe sought to prevent already have occurred, but he doesn't think the tribe is in danger of winning only a Pyrrhic victory.

"Things happen for a reason," he says. "Why did Kennewick Man choose this time to come back? He came back to bring all the Indian people together to fight for the natural world."

On the Web:
Burke Museum Kennewick Man Exhibit

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