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Kennewick Man

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Kennewick man is the name that has been given to the skeletal remains of a pre-historical man found along the banks of River Columbia in Washington. These remains were found during a boat race in the Columbia River in July 28th, 1996. Incidentally, two fans had pulled ashore to get a better view of the race found the human skulls and thereafter took them to the County Coroners. From the County Coroners, an archeologist known as James Chatter used the skulls to retrieve a nearly complete human skull with a long narrow face. This was claimed to suggest a European descent. However, controversy began to rise early when the skull was found to be over 9,000 years old laying to rest earlier speculations that it could be 40 to 50 years old.(Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi 1997).

From that moment on, the stretch of Columbia River has been maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers, being considered a part of the traditional homeland of the Umatilla tribe. This kind of arrangement draws from the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act that was signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. This act dictates that if human remains are found on Federal lands and their cultural affiliation properly determined then the bones must be returned to that particular tribe for reburial. The Umatilla tribe made the claim to the bones and the claim was granted thereby necessitating commencement of the process of repatriation.(Lee Mike, December 26, 1999).

Immediately the process of repatriation began, eight archeologists sued for the right to study the skull before it could be reburied. And in September 1998, the high court judges ordered that the skulls be sent for study. However, yet again a protracted battle took shape. The political battles were framed mostly by people who wanted to know about the actual race of the Kennewick man. Finally, the study commenced in Seattle Museum in 2005 and results started trickling in later in 2006. Till this day, the actual race of Kennewick man has not been determined as they neither fit the Indian nor the European Races. (Tano Mervyn, Kimberly TallBear and Huia Pacey, 2000).

The politics of the Kennewick man has become complex with time. Sometime in January of the year 2000, there was a moment of relief that the issue had been solved. That was when Franck McManamon, the Chief Archeologist at the National Park Service, announced that the findings on the skeletal remains had indicated an age of about 9,000 and therefore rendered the skeleton subject to the National American Graves and Repatriation Act. Department of Interior,( September 25, 2000).  However, this was not to last. In a quick rejoinder, the court indicated that there was still an issue with the real meaning of the word Native America as defined in the Act. According to them, the inclusion of the word indigenous in the definition implied that the law could not apply to tribes that descended from the immigrants who came to America from other continents. (Liloqula Ruth, Summer 1996).

However, the problem could easily be solved if politics and legal arguments are kept at bay. It is quite visible that the Congress did not intend to limit the term Native American. Rather, the National American Graves and Repatriation Act was meant to be all inclusive for the tribes and cultures that resided in the lands comprising the United States of America prior to the historically documented European exploration of these American lands. In fact, by all the scientific information available, every single individual in America is a descendant from the immigrants who came from other continents. In light of this, the legislation by the Congress could not any other meaning.(Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi 1997).

The question of the real affiliation of the Kennewick man remains a fundamental problem. Already, five different tribes have laid claim for its ownership. These include the Umatilla, Colville, Wanapum, Nez Perce and Yakama. As much as the war of words continues to rage, what remains to be seen is whether a DNA test will unravel this affiliation.( Kevles, Daniel J. 1994). However, archeologists already acknowledge that this determination will be a daunting task considering that ethnicity is only determined by cultural definitions and not any scientific methods. Indeed, the only reliable way to make an intelligent guess is by using the study of the ancient skeletal remains to understand the migration patterns of the American immigrants. (Tano Mervyn, Kimberly TallBear and Huia Pacey, 2000).

In a letter written in September 2000 by Bruce Babbitt who was by the time the US Secretary of the Interior seemed to have laid the few facts that existed. According to her, the Department of Defense of the United States had determined that the evidence of the cultural continuity was strong enough to show that the Kennewick man is affiliated to the present day Indian tribe claimants. In her view, the Indian tribe claimants were then considered the legal custodians of the skeletal material. (Liloqula, Ruth, Summer 1996).

The evidence that formed the backbone of the argument of the Department of Interior was obtained from oral history, American geography and a small bit of archeological sources. However, the public perception of the Department of Interior that this provided adequate evidence was quite interesting, considering they did not recommend or intend to do any further testing.(Kevles Daniel J. 1994). However, shortly thereafter, the Department found out that another skeletal remain called the Spirit Cave mummy could not be affiliated historically or otherwise to any of the modern tribes, although it was roughly the same age as the Kennewick man.(General Assembly of the State of Vermont, 2000). As a matter of fact, none of the laboratories could make any findings on the DNA samples given to them. In fact, they could not even obtain adequate material for the DNA tests from the bone collagen. It was only up to late that the U.C. Davis Molecular Anthropology Laboratory reported that further developments in the methods of DNA analysis could make it possible to extract and study the DNA of the remains of the Kennewick man.(Tano Mervyn, Kimberly TallBear and Huia Pacey, 2000).
While that sounded like a good idea then, it is yet to happen. The eight scholars who had gone to court to be allowed access to the Kennewick skeletal material came to the fore again. They renewed their suit against what they considered a severe professional setback. This is a clear indicator that besides the politics of the Kennewick man, a good majority of the general public hold the belief that the Kennewick Man should be reburied without further DNA analysis. (Associated Press, February 2, 2000).To many observers, this could just be but one of the unending battle in the war between scientific advancement and conservative religious beliefs. Meanwhile, there is no denying that the stakes are high on both sides of the divide and may not end soon if not timely reconciled.(Luca Cavalli-Sforza Luigi, 1997).

Some legal progress continues to be made anyway. On August 2002, a judge in the state of Oregon gave a ruling that was considered a relief for the archeologists. This long-awaited decision saw the judge rule that the scientists must be permitted access to the Kennewick skeletal remains so they could study it and make the determinations that befit them. It further restricted the repatriated of the skeletal remains of the Kennewick man to the American Indian tribes that were party to the court case. This reasoning no doubt had serious implications then and will certainly have an impact on future procedures and legal considerations concerning the protection of archaeological resources.(Liloqula, Ruth, Summer 1996).

As of any legal document, the Kennewick Man decision is like a die already cast. The document was clearly written with perfect logic and therefore the mere fact that it bears sharp criticism of the undertakings of the Department of the Interior on the federal lands cannot be taken for granted. However, it continues to be seen as a denial of rights of the tribes, often drawing more sympathy than sense in its analysis. Currently, the popular argument is that the prevailing legislation that should have been given more consideration was that which protects archeological resources (APRA) and not the one that roots for repatriation (NAGPRA). (Tano, Mervyn, Kimberly TallBear and Huia Pacey, 2000)

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act ARPA of 1979 was purposely intended to ensure that archaeological sites occurring on federal lands are properly safeguarded. Further, the main focus was to be on the protection and conservation of the archaeological materials for science. In fact, all the artifacts found under ARPA were to be given special protection by the state and be made available to qualified scientists in a timely manner.(Kevles, Daniel J. 1994).  On the other hand, NAGPRA that was enacted in 1990 was meant to ensure that archaeological and cultural materials the lands considered federal lands would necessitate repatriation to the original owners as defined by history. However this was to be effected only after they had been properly identified and assigned to the descendants American Indian tribes who made a logical claim for them, especially archeological material of human remains and the traditional ceremonial goods. Essentially, it remains to be seen if the legal battles will continue and if the Indian tribes will be given a permanent right to bury the skeletal remains after an adequate DNA test. (Lee Mike, December 26, 1999). Meanwhile, the battle continues in the court of laws and the pulpit with equal measures. It remains to be seen just if DNA test will provide a solution to this complex question.

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