The Long Legal and Moral Battle Over Kennewick Man
He had a name, not that we will ever know it.
He also had wounds—a spear point embedded deep in his hip that suggests battle; a half-dozen broken ribs, several dents in his head and a chipped-off piece of bone in his right shoulder socket that indicated he had been battered in a rough world.
But he was tough. Strong.
The shoulder injury alone is considered a career-ender when it happens today to fireballing relief pitchers, but the ancient hunter probably didn’t have retirement as an option. Then there’s the knapped-rock spear point, which, had it pierced his body an inch higher, would have killed him.
“He was a very robust and very large man. Well-muscled, especially in his right arm and left leg—he was a javelin thrower, more than likely an atlatl user. He was absolutely a hunter and he was tough as nails in his world. He had to keep moving to eat.”
This portrayal of a sturdy spear-hunter from around 9,500 years ago comes from Doug Owsley, an esteemed forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution. Owsley was sharing these observations in a richly detailed three-hour presentation, delivered without notes, in central Washington state last fall. There was a spillover crowd drawn to the tiny, Columbia River village of Wanapum—people hungry for the first real news in nearly a decade about the controversial skeleton known as Kennewick Man, or the Ancient One.
There is still an open sore with Kennewick Man. It’s the chafe between science and spirituality, between people who say the remains have so much to tell us about the ancient human past that they should remain available for research, versus people who feel a kinship with the ancient bones and say they should be reburied to show proper reverence for the dead.
It has been almost 17 years since two young men trying to sneak into the annual hydroplane races in Kennewick, Washington, stumbled (literally) across a skeleton in the shallows of the Columbia River; the Ancient One has been caught in limbo ever since. He is in the custody of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the waterways behind a series of federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. The Ancient One is stored in a secured vault at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum in Seattle.
Owsley and seven other scientists sued the corps to keep the bones from being turned over to a coalition of area tribes for reburial, and the court battle has gone as high as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but is not yet settled. The Ninth Circuit, in February 2004, upheld a ruling that there’s no evidence Kennewick Man is related to any of the present-day Plateau Tribes.
It’s a common interpretation that the federal courts are saying Kennewick Man is not an Indian. Not so. The ruling is both more nuanced and less. More, because it says that a single skeleton as ancient as this one, found outside any context of community—village or ancient burial ground—doesn’t provide enough evidence to connect it, culturally or genetically, to a present-day Native group. Less, because the ruling came during an administrative hearing in which local Plateau tribes were not allowed to introduce evidence—oral tradition, ancient settlements—that could have connected the Ancient One to where he was found.
The real outcome, however, is that the Ancient One is likely to remain in his unmarked vault at the Burke for a long time.
What further chafes the Five Claimant Tribes, as they are known in court documents, is that human remains roughly as ancient as, or even older than, those of the Ancient One have been repatriated without any controversy via the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). I had the rare privilege of witnessing one such repatriation.
Going Home for Some
Not far from where Kennewick Man was found, there is a butte turned sepia with late autumn—dried weeds and tanned grasses and the brown of exposed basalt—a high, lonely overlook above the joining of the Palouse and Snake rivers. Two weeks after Owsley’s talk, Rex Buck Jr., a spiritual leader of the Wanapum, stands alongside a square, open grave. He removes a brass hand-bell from a pouch on his belt and raises it to a sky threatening rain.
The stillness here, the sense of remoteness is astonishing. It’s remarkable that this is now such an empty quadrant of Washington—somnolent Starbuck [population 129] and the Lyons Ferry Marina, with its pizza oven and fragrant coffee pot are the scant evidence of settlement on the far side of the Snake. The 15 of us atop the butte are seemingly the only humans around for miles.
It wasn’t always so. At the confluence below is the site of the ancient village of Palus, sunken now under the reservoir formed by Lower Monumental Dam. More than two centuries ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the explorer David Thompson and assorted other roamers and traders—Indian and white alike—stopped off at Palus and noted its importance as a well-established crossroads for commerce and travel from the coast to the plains.
It was also the main settlement of the Palus Indians, who lived in villages strung along the lower Snake River.
The undulating top of the butte tells an even longer story. Over there, beyond Rex Buck’s left shoulder, a wide, dark bracket in the basalt rock face marks the opening to a cave. It’s Marmes, the Marmes Rockshelter—a potential world-class archaeological site that shows evidence of an estimated 14,000 years of continuous human occupation. It must be described as a “potential” world-class site because Marmes, just as it was beginning to be excavated, was flooded by the construction of Lower Monumental Dam, which is one of four federal dams built in the 1960s and 1970s to make the Snake River navigable to Lewiston, Idaho, some 465 miles from the sea. This was when the movement of wheat via barge was deemed more important than the migration of once-robust wild salmon that sustained Native cultures for thousands of years.
The remains being re-interred on this Tuesday morning are the third and perhaps final group of people who had once lived at Marmes that were located and repatriated under NAGPRA, and they are estimated to be in the range of 10,000 years old. People were roaming this area well before Kennewick Man. These ancient remains were among those rescued from the encroaching floodwaters of the Lower Monumental reservoir in the mid-to-late 1960s and stored at Washington State University for the past half-century.
So how is it these paleo remains are being repatriated under NAGPRA and Kennewick Man is not? Partly, it has to do with the “accidental” discovery of Kennewick Man’s remains and partly to caution over not igniting another fight with tribes.
Mary Collins, associate director of the Museum of Anthropology at Washington State University, says, “Because of the [controversy over the] Kennewick decision, it took awhile to build an argument for reburying the older ones.… In a nutshell, the difference between Kennewick and the Marmes was in fact that Kennewick was an inadvertent discovery.”
The important difference, Collins notes, is that Kennewick Man was found alone, while the remains of Marmes inhabitants were found in an organized dig that also revealed evidence of community and continuous human occupation at the site for millennia. “And that was the basis for arguing that they were appropriately repatriated as American Indians,” Collins says.
Jennifer Richman, senior assistant district counsel for the Corps of Engineers, Portland District, clarifies that the decision does not say the Marmes people are Palus people. “By just saying it’s more likely than not [the remains are] culturally affiliated with the tribes, we’re not then definitively saying that yes the Marmes remains are Palus, just that there’s a preponderance of evidence to show a connection there and a cultural affiliation,” Richman adds.
To some tribal people, the difference between the way NAGPRA treats Kennewick Man and the Marmes people is just semantics, or at best a bureaucratic distinction. Among Owsley’s findings since 2005 is evidence that confirms earlier reports from scientists working for the Corps of Engineers that the Ancient One was deliberately buried. Tribal people say this shows Kennewick Man was not a loner wandering in an empty world, but was loved enough by others to be buried after his death.
And after thousands of years in the earth, his erosion-caused reappearance must be corrected by reburial, they say. “He died in our land, and we have taken care of him for 10,000 years. Is he a man of this area? I believe so,” says Jackie Cook, repatriation specialist of the Colville Confederated Tribes.
The Wandering One
Owsley disagrees with that assertion. He says analysis of radioactive isotopes in the bones indicate Kennewick Man drank glacier-fed water, not necessarily Columbia River water, and that he ate a heavy marine diet, more likely to include seals rather than just salmon. Kennewick Man, Owsley concludes, was a coastal resident who traveled inland.
Members of the Five Claimant Tribes disagree, citing for instance that sea lions still chase migrating salmon as far upriver as the Bonneville Dam, some 146 miles from the ocean, and that there is archaeological evidence that shows sea lions came much farther inland before dams were built.
But this only shows there is need for more study, Owsley contends. “There are, to my mind, some collections that I think are so fundamental that they should be preserved for another generation of scientists with different questions—totally different questions—and better methods,” he says by telephone from his office at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. “I mean, you look at my 35-plus years of doing this and the way I analyze a skeleton today is totally different from what I did back then. What we can learn today are things I wasn’t even thinking about. And I have to feel Kennewick Man absolutely falls in that category.”
At Wanapum last fall, Owsley ended his presentation by describing two more tests he would like to conduct on Kennewick Man—one that examines dental enamel to ascertain Kennewick Man’s childhood diet, which could be a telling clue as to where he grew up; the other to use advancements in scanning technology to re-examine the spear point, which could determine precisely where it was quarried.
Owsley says he has made these proposals to the Army corps but has received no permissions. Richman, the corps’ lawyer dealing with Kennewick Man, says the agency has denied earlier proposals from Owsley that were deemed too destructive to the bones, and has not yet received formal proposals from Owsley on less-invasive procedures. Still, one asks, will Owsley do the two more tests and then return the Ancient One to the tribes for reburial?
“I don’t think that’s going to be my decision,” he says, noting that the corps still holds the remains. “My goal here is to really set a standard to explain what we know right now and also point to what we don’t know. Some of that can be answered with this man and some of that will, hopefully, be answered with other discoveries but I can tell you they are few and far between, they are exceedingly rare.”
Even some tribal members, such as Jackie Cook of the Colville, appreciate the glimpse science offers into the distant past, because that story is her story. But the scientists never seem to acknowledge that they are asking a lot of Native people whose “shared history” comes from having skeletons of their relatives and ancestors kidnapped from graves and kept in boxes or on shelves in museums and universities or private living rooms.
This is driven home by Armand Minthorn, a spiritual and political leader of the Umatilla and the first Indian to demand the return of Kennewick Man, just days after the bones were found. “When you suggest you can get so much information from these remains, that may be the case, however they’re ours. And they are sacred. Period. End of discussion,” Minthorn says.
Collins, of Washington State University, sees one good change that’s come from the bitter fight over Kennewick Man. “As a teacher looking at the next generation of scientists, their understanding of the need to address multiple interests and multiple perspectives is day-and-night difference than a generation ago…they are much more sensitive to the context of addressing other peoples’ concerns and not assuming that your concerns have greater value than theirs.”
‘He Wants to Go Home’
Cook is one of four tribal women who prepared the Marmes remains for reburial—with smudging, prayer, song and muslin. She would love to experience a similar moment with Kennewick Man. “It’s on my bucket list.”
She then tells the following story: “Several years ago we [several Plateau tribes] were doing a joint claim with the Burke Museum and it was very convoluted. We spent a full week there.”
Throughout the week, Cook and others could only move around with an escort from museum repatriation officers. “And we would say, ‘Is that the door? Is that one the door?’ He had his own vault and at that time they were keeping his location secret. And the repatriation officer would just smile and wouldn’t answer us.
“And so the week went on and we were all working together and at one point I said, ‘Well I don’t care. I am just old enough not to care if they put me in jail. If I could get him out I would take him with us and we would rebury him.’ It was very light-hearted and jovial but on the last day we were loading up and the alarms went off and everybody turned around and asked, ‘Where’s Jackie?’ I was in the back of the room and we were laughing and I said, ‘See? See? Listen to your heart, he wants to come.’”
Some months later, Cook was meeting with Burke staffers, when they told her the alarm that day was from the Ancient One’s vault. “He has his own alarm and it was his alarm,” she says.
The museum staff didn’t know what set it off that day, Cook says. Burke collections manager Laura Phillips confirms the anecdote, and adds that she doesn’t know what set off Kennewick Man’s alarm.
Cook has a good guess: “He wants to go home.”
Birdsong and Pizza
Back atop the butte, Cook and other women stand in a line at the foot of the open grave, men stand to one side. The women wrap themselves in shawls. Buck, who is latest in a long line of Wanapum spiritual leaders, slices the hand-bell down from overhead and rings out a rhythm. He begins to sing in the old language—sonorous and pure. All the Indians join, the men’s voices deep, the women lilting. It was a gray day, high cloudy, but as younger men carried the boxes of remains from an SUV—bones wrapped in muslin and prayer, remains separated by sex, bones placed in the ground on fresh-woven tule mats—as these bones were going in the ground and people were singing, the sun broke out, and over the singing there was heard birdsong.
It seems there is often such a moment as this, when good words are said aloud and good songs are sung in the old language and it seems as if the world responds. After, we all went for pizza at the Lyons Ferry marina across the Snake. “You can tell people you were at a traditional Indian feast. We like pizza!”
There were jokes and good humor up and down the long table. After all, people were in a fine mood after returning the remains of the Marmes people to some very ground that, quite likely, they had stood upon. As the pizzas arrived, there was also serious discussion of how much work is left. As universities and museums become aware of NAGPRA and comply with the law this is the easy part. What’s tougher will be tracking down remains taken by artifact traders and private collectors—grave robbers to some.
When we’re leaving, I mention the sun break to the Umatilla guy with the long, thin braids ending at his breastbone, and he smiles. Coincidence or Creator it don’t matter, Tuesday morning people came home. From 10,000 years ago they came home. And the Earth smiled to see them again, the birds sang.
It would be wonderful to offer this grace to Kennewick Man as well. Because it’s possible the Earth has heard his name and remembers it, even if we do not.
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