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By Kate Riley Seattle Times editorial columnist
I've been thinking a lot lately about a guy in the news who used to share my
old stomping grounds.
We both are fairly recent transplants from Kennewick and reside in North
Seattle. Actually, I reside; he reposes at the Burke Museum under lock and
I've been enamored of Kennewick Man, the remains of a man who died 9,400
years ago, ever since that hot July day in 1996 when his skull was found by
wading hydroplane race fans between Columbia Cup heats.
When it turned out the 380 bones found were not those of a victim of recent
foul play but of a man who nine millennia before walked the same area where a
friend and I met to walk on Saturdays, I was hooked on the possibilities. I
wondered about this tough guy, who walked around for half of his 45 years
with a spear point embedded in his hip. I wondered if he enjoyed the shrub
steppe landscape and the Columbia River as much as I did, or if he was too
focused on survival to care.
Thanks to an Aug. 30 federal court ruling, Kennewick Man soon might be able
to share some of these answers and help tell the story of the earliest
I've rooted all along for the eight scientists who sued to study the remains
when the federal government hastily decided to turn them over to five tribes
who claim Kennewick Man as a distant ancestor.
I am also sympathetic to the tribes' concerns. The Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 is a righteous law intended
to return Native American remains and artifacts to the tribes with whom they
are culturally affiliated.
Kennewick Man's lineage, however, is not so easy to determine. Limited
studies to determine the remains' cultural affiliation found his features are
very different from those of the Native Americans who claim him as a
grandfather at least 375 generations removed -- that's 375 "greats." Rather,
he resembles people of Polynesia or the Ainu of Japan -- as well as other
ancient skeletons found in North America. Some experts say he looks more like
the 25,000-year-old remains of a woman found near Beijing than modern Native
Americans, suggesting links to Asia. Kennewick Man should belong not just to
Native Americans but to all of humanity. Potentially, his bones provide a
link to our common past, perhaps before evolution divided humans into races.
Unfortunately, the law is vague on what to do about cases such as Kennewick
Man, where the remains are so exceptional in their age and features that a
credible affiliation is not possible.
And there's the rub. The Army Corps of Engineers, which owned the beach where
Kennewick Man was found, and later the Interior Department have maintained
the repatriation act applies. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt ruled
the remains were Native American, because they were found in the United
States and pre-dated Columbus' landing in America.
Setting aside that this "1492 rule" ignores evidence of earlier Viking
visits, Babbitt's decision ignored that Kennewick Man's features are distinct
from those who claim to be his descendents.
U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks, the referee of this battle between science and
Native American beliefs, disagreed strongly with the government. His 73-page
ruling called the decision "arbitrary and capricious" and determined the
repatriation law does not apply. Jelderks ordered the scientists be permitted
to study the remains.
Government attorneys aren't saying yet whether they'll appeal. But they
shouldn't. And the Interior Department's NAGPRA Review Committee, which is in
the process of drafting rules to handle these culturally unidentifiable
remains, should carefully consider the conclusions of Jelderks' meticulous
ruling. The committee's next meeting is Nov. 10-11 in Seattle, and it had
planned to consider a proposed rule that would give such remains to the
tribes that have lived in the area where they were found.
That's an inadequate solution, because it assumes that ancient people stayed
put, never moving over generations. Early findings about the 11,000-year-old
remains, Pan Era Woman, found recently along the Texas Gulf Coast, suggest a
diet of someone who lived inland, far from where her bones were found.
So far, a repatriation act claim has not been made for Pan Era Woman's
remains also found on federal property, but that is a possibility. Other
ancient remains yet to be found could be subject to the same sort of legal
battle as over Kennewick Man, which so far has cost American taxpayers $3
Better that Congress move quickly to clarify what should be done with these
ancient remains that cannot be traced to modern Native Americans. Rep. Doc
Hastings, R-Washington, had proposed an amendment in the last Congress that
would have done so. A spokesman said last week he might try again.
I hope he does. Kennewick Man and similar ancient remains have much to tell
the world about our common heritage. And now, barring an ill-considered
government appeal, Kennewick Man will get the chance.
Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her
e-mail address is [email protected]
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company
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