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The Legal Controversy over the Kennewick Man

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On November 16, 1990, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA ) was passed to protect the remains of native peoples on federal land if they are affiliated with any modern-day tribes. The Act is designed "To provide for the protection of Native American graves, and for other purposes," ( U.S. Congress, p. 1). It requires federal agencies and other institutions that receive federal "cultural items" ─such as human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects that spawn from cultural heritage and significance─ that once belonged to Native Americans to repatriate those items. To achieve the end result of honesty and fairness, a program of federal grants assists in the repatriation process and the Secretary of the Interior may assess civil penalties on museums that fail to comply.

The NAGPRA was challenged after hydroplane race crashers Will Thomas and Dave Deacy discovered a human skull on the banks of the Columbia River ─that ran through a park in a Kennewick, WA─ they had no idea their find would spark a crisis in American anthropology and fuel rancorous debate across America. "The accidental discovery ... caused a sensation, not only because of its age, but also because some features did not resemble those of modern American Indians, as would have been expected then," (Sanders, p. 1). While scientists fought to keep the remains in their possession so they could study them, Indian tribes, from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, who called Kennewick Man their ancestor and "the ancient one" demanded his reburial. Briefly, pagan groups argued that the Kennewick Man had features that were more Caucasoid than Indian, claimed that the remains were descended from ancient Norse people, (Sanders, p. 1).

Central Washington University professor, Dr. Jim Chatters, an anthropologist "who runs a business called Applied Paleoscience," (Malcomson, para. 3) determined the find to be that of a 50-year-old Caucasoid man who had died about 100 years ago or more (para. 3). "However, the man had an ancient-looking stone projectile stuck in his right hip, which ha[d] not been common among whites for ages" (para. 3). Therefore, he sent the samples to a more advance laboratory to be dated via a process known as "radio carbon dating, a chemical analysis used to determine the age of organic materials based on their content of the radio isotope Carbon 14 and believed to be reliable up to 40,000 years (Princeton). The bones, which came to be known as the "Kennewick Man," were found to be about 9,300 years old.

Chatters' finding about the Kennewick Man has been called "the strangest instance yet of racial profiling," (Malcomson, para. 4). At the center of the controversy is Dr. Chatters' claim that the remains were those of a European man, thus challenging notions that Indians were the true natives in America.. "In a statement on his web pages, Chatters said European remains of an earlier age than previously known would "...significantly alter conventional views of how, when, and by whom the Americas were peopled. ... [And while] None of the participants in the Kennewick saga have relished using the language of race, it seems to crop up at every juncture. Local Native American leaders imagine Kennewick Man as an ancestor and want to rebury him as soon as possible. But because no one tribe can assert an exclusive tie to that strip of the Columbia River -- and because the bones are so old -- the Native American claim has quickly become more ''racial'' than tribal," (Malcomson, 2000, p. 1).

Author J.T. Gordon, an Indo-European priest, argues that the remains are most likely European, although, he says, his is not of the popular opinion: "That a 'Caucasian' was here in the Northwest thousands of years before what modern understanding allows is a hassle for the established scientific community, which already has an order, agenda and philosophy worked out about the populating of the Americas, which by the way doesn't match up with what the pre-Columbus inhabitants, that is the First Nations, believe. The First Nations have said for years, in statements to the press and in literature quoting their beliefs, that they were 'spawned' here and were not immigrants across the Bering Strait," (p. 1).

Dr. Chatters, who identified the skeletal remains as those left by a 50-year -old white man between 5 foot nine and five foot ten inches tall, wanted to study specifics including teeth scrapings whereby he could get an idea of the man's diet and the strange 3-inch spear point that was embedded in his pelvis. Key questions were: Who put the spear their and why? Was it an act of murder? Was is proof of European conquest or Indian savagery?

Amid the controversy, Armand Minthorn, a board member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, located in Oregon 40 to 50 miles southeast of Kennewick, asked "How would you feel if we came into your cemetery and dug up your ancestors?" (Oldham, p. 2). Minthorn became a leading figure in the struggle to rebury the man and immediately

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