Activity 1. The Facts of the Case
Have students review these documents and work in study teams to outline the facts of the case. To prepare for this exercise, guide the class through a sample review of one document, highlighting important points of the argument. Have a representative of each team present the group's summary of one phase of the case. You may wish to use the summary below as a supplement to students' presentations.
- Discovery: Kennewick Man was discovered by accident in July 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. James Chatters, the archeologist who first studied the nearly complete skeleton, assumed that it was the remains of an early pioneer, based on Caucasian features of the skull and bone structure. He noticed, however, a stone projectile point (arrow or spear head) lodged in the pelvic bone that is of a type usually identified as from 8,500 to 4,500 years old. To determine the age of the skeleton, he had radiocarbon tests performed, which revealed that it is approximately 8,400 years old. Kennewick Man, in other words, comes from the time of North America's earliest inhabitants and his physical traits suggest that non-Indian peoples may have been among the first settlers here.
- Native American Claims: When it was learned that Kennewick Man pre-dates the arrival of Europeans in the New World, the skeleton became subject to the requirements of NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This federal law is designed in part to restore to Native Americans the ancestral remains and associated sacred objects that have been collected as scientific specimens over the decades and put on display in museums across the United States. The law also allows Native Americans to claim newly discovered remains of indigenous peoples, assigning control over the remains to an individual or tribe based on evidence of a biological, geographical, or cultural affiliation. Under this latter provision, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which had jurisdiction in this case because Kennewick Man was discovered in a navigable waterway) suspended any further scientific study of the skeleton and notified tribes with ancestral homelands in the area where it was found. A consortium of five Native American groups, led by the Umatilla tribes, claimed a geographical and cultural affiliation with Kennewick Man, based on the age and location of the skeleton, and announced their intention to rebury him.
- Archeological Objections: Alarmed that they would lose the opportunity to study Kennewick Man further, archeologists filed suit against the Corps of Engineers to block the transfer of the skeleton to the tribes. The scientists argued that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate a cultural affiliation between Kennewick Man and these tribes, and that, based on the skeleton's physical characteristics, there is no biological affiliation between Kennewick Man and any modern tribe. They also claimed a right to study the skeleton under a provision of NAGPRA that permits scientific research that will be "of major benefit to the United States," and charged that denying their claim to the skeleton "because they're not Native Americans" would be a violation of their civil rights. Although not a party to this lawsuit, the Umatilla tribes argued that NAGPRA entitled them to claim the Kennewick Man remains based on geographical affiliation, and that their religious beliefs required that the remains be quickly and respectfully reburied. In addition, they denied the scientists' theories about Kennewick Man, explaining that, according to their oral histories, Indian people have always lived in North America but have not always looked the way they do today. Faced with this impasse, the court and Corps of Engineers deferred a final decision in the case for more than two years.
- Resolution: Reports about Kennewick Man stirred widespread public interest in the controversy until, in late 1998, the National Park Service, which administers NAGPRA, finally agreed to conduct tests to determine if the skeleton is Native American as defined under the law, and if so whether it is affiliated to any modern tribe. After first raising objections, the archeologists who had sued for permission to study Kennewick Man eventually accepted the National Park Service plan. The Umatilla tribes, who felt that their position had been misrepresented in the press and who still felt a religious obligation to rebury the Kennewick Man remains, regretted but did not resist the decision.
Activity 2. The Native American point of view
Against this background, have students analyze the Native American point of view in the Kennewick Man controversy, as expressed in the Umatilla position paper, "Human Remains Should Be Reburied."
- As students discuss this document, encourage them to recognize that the Umatilla speak for a comprehensive and time-tested world view which is rooted in cultural tradition and in the historical struggle to preserve their traditions against the pressures of a dominant culture.
- Have students identify evidence of this struggle in the Umatilla position paper. Note, for example, the emphasis on law and other sources of social authority—the ties of homeland, treaty rights, religious doctrines, cultural traditions, tribal policies and procedures, federal statutes, oral history. Why do the Umatilla substantiate their rights in this way? What sources of authority could archeologists cite? What gives archeologists the right to claim Kennewick Man for study? On the other hand, how does the history of legal disputes between Indians and non-Indians reflect on this case? Have laws protected Indian rights in the past when non-Indians have sought "to bend the laws to fit their desires," as the Umatilla spokesman puts it?
- In addition to the history of relationships between Indians and non-Indians, there is a special history of antagonism between Indians and scientists. Inform students that because scientists at one time regarded Native Americans as "a vanishing race," they were especially aggressive in collecting and preserving Native American skeletal remains. Until recently, for example, Native American remains made up more than 60 percent of the Smithsonian Institution's skeletal remains collection, a number far out of proportion to the percentage of Native Americans in the world population. Where does the Umatilla position paper allude to this history of aggressive scientific study? How does this legacy bear on the case from the Umatilla point of view?
- Setting the historical context aside, focus next on the Umatilla's direct arguments against the need for further research, where they oppose cultural traditions to science. Instead of an ancient immigrant, they see Kennewick Man as an ancestor, because tradition says that Indians have lived in North America from the beginning of time. Instead of a Caucasian, they see him as one of their own, since tradition says that Indian people have not always looked the way they do today. Instead of a clue that can unlock the past, they see him as part of their past, a confirmation of their past, and feel an obligation to respect the link between them. Have students respond to this clash between Native American and scientific viewpoints.
Activity 3. The scientific point of view
Now turn to the scientific point of view in the Kennewick Man controversy, as expressed in the "Claims for the Remains", available at the PBS documentary website, "Mystery of the First Americans" with links to essays by eight scientists.
- Remind students that this article is not a response to the Umatilla position paper, but it does indicate why archeologists consider study of Kennewick Man so critically important. Have students explain the theory presented here. What is meant by the "maritime revolution"? How does evidence that ancient peoples could travel significant distances by water extend the period during which people first came to North America? How does it expand their possible routes of migration? How would DNA testing of ancient remains shed light on the theory of multiple ocean-going migrations? What would a genetic link between Kennewick Man and ancient peoples in Europe prove about the earliest inhabitants of North America?
- In addition to explaining why study of Kennewick Man is important to scientists, the article indicates that there is "wide popular interest" in solving the mysteries of ancient North America and that science stands "in the vanguard of the popular will" when it seeks answers to such mysteries. Have students consider how this claim of popular support for science might bear on the dispute. Should the majority rule in a question of religious rights? Is there a public "right to know" that outweighs considerations of respect for the dead? To what extent, from a Native American point of view, might this line of argument be understood as a variation on "might makes right"?
- The article explores the relationship between science and religion most directly when it describes the study of human remains as "an echo" of traditional rituals of respect for the dead. What is the basis for this analogy? What kind of meaning do scientists see in human remains? What kind of significance do human remains have for traditional cultures? Later the article extends this analogy by claiming that archeologists have inherited from priests and shamans the role of answering questions about the origins of human culture. What does this evolutionary view imply about the role of religion in today's world? What value does it ascribe to religious traditions? How does it compare to the Umatilla faith in truths handed down from the past? What is at risk for Native Americans when such truths are contradicted by scientific fact?