Kennewick Controversy: A Sign of the Times
February 10, 2004 6:40 AM   Subscribe

Research Vs. Religion: Scientists Win Lawsuit Against Native American Tribes The 9,000 year old remains, found in Kennewick, Washington in 1996, will be made available for study, rather than being buried by tribes who had hoped to assert the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in this case.
posted by mcgraw (18 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Washing State was like 9000 years ago's version of Ellis Island. No one can claim ancestry on those bones.
posted by techgnollogic at 7:30 AM on February 10, 2004

This is good.
posted by languagehat at 7:40 AM on February 10, 2004

Although I don't have the time to go into it right now, I urge you to take a closer look at this story. Every article I've seen about this portrays it as a simple split between religion and reason, the same thing we've heard so often. But there's a much deeper cultural divide this offers an opportunity to explore.

Pay attention to who speaks for the Native Americans in all these stories -- one lawyer. Wonder for a moment why there's not a bit of genuine cultural perspective from the Native American side. Really, why is this important to these four tribes? Understand that "scientists" vs. "Native Americans" is drastically reductive.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 8:50 AM on February 10, 2004

This is deeply problematic territory for me - I am glad for the court's decision, but with misgivings which are expressed, at least in part, in grrarrgh00's comment above.
posted by troutfishing at 9:01 AM on February 10, 2004

Wonder for a moment why there's not a bit of genuine cultural perspective from the Native American side. Really, why is this important to these four tribes?

What does culture have to do with it? The crux of the case was that the northwestern Indians were, as near as can be found, simply factually incorrect in claiming Kennewick Man as their ancestor. Their culture might hold that anyone from the prehistoric northwest is one of their ancestors, but that doesn't make that claim correct.

It's important to the four tribes presumably because they're tired of having their actual ancestors dug up and put in museums. But that shouldn't give them any grounds to object to someone who is not one of their ancestors being dug up and studied.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:46 AM on February 10, 2004

But that shouldn't give them any grounds to object to someone who is not one of their ancestors being dug up and studied.

That opens up a whole can of worms, if you pardon the expression.
posted by carter at 10:04 AM on February 10, 2004

There is no knowledge to be obtained by burying things to rot in the ground. Repatriation should rarely be permitted, and never to groups with dubious claims on remains.
posted by rushmc at 10:07 AM on February 10, 2004

I just wish there was some criminal sanction against those Interior Department vandals who ordered hundreds of tons of gravel and dirt poured over the site where the bones were unearthed--ruining it forever.
posted by kablam at 10:19 AM on February 10, 2004

The tribes filing this claim had no more standing than I would have in protesting archaeological digs at the Olduvai Gorge.

I agree that the Western scientific establishment has run up a huge tab of shocking disrespect for cultural practices regarding the remains of the dead.

However, that was correctly deemed irrelevant in this case.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:25 AM on February 10, 2004

I'm not saying the court was wrong. The 9th DCCoA is like my best friend in the judicial branch of government, and I applaud their decision again.

I'm saying look at the story one more time, deeper.

This is only one small snapshot of a much larger, long-ignored cultural picture. Again, this story is not about Natives vs. scientists, even if that's how it's been written. All I'm saying is, for some people, this is going to be one of exactly three stories they read in 2004 about the Native struggle in America. And it's either an opportunity for them to smugly rearrange their prejudices, cheer the triumphant onward march of reason over ritual, and move on. And I encourage you not to let that be your sole engagement with this story. There are voices not included here, and that deserves a look.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 10:50 AM on February 10, 2004


I sure wish you had a little more time. I'd be interested to hear your views on the topic. Your instructions to me to "pay attention," "wonder," and "understand" leave me vague on what you mean and somewhere between puzzled and hurt by your seeming condescension -- you exhort me to realize that the convenient "__ vs. __" form is "drastically reductive" without suggesting any alternative.

Do you intend to have me do all the work of figuring out what you would have said if you had more time? A follow-up post would be more appropriate than ever, but I fear that, lacking time, you will never read this request. Sad, because I'm interested in reading your views.

[On preview, I see that you've posted since I started this response, which implies that you do have the time to make your views plain. I'd still like to read them.]

This is a deeply complex issue reaching to the core of American Indian identity, itself a complex concept. The loss of traditional folkways in American history is well-documented. Most American Indians today have a great gap between themselves and the last of their ancestors to follow the old ways.

Too often attempted revivals of the old folkways are hampered by mystery -- mystery imposed by time, war (or genocide), and assimilation. The cultural revivalist sees any remains, however removed from even their 1,000 year-old culture (in this case by a whopping 8,000 years), as a link to a past that was broken by the US government.

Research into the remains can tell us, as research invariably does, just who Kennewick man was. And it will doubtless tell us that he had nothing whatever to do with modern American Indian tribes in what is now Washington. Research sheds light on the truth and is thus a lofty, useful, and necessary goal.

But to a people searching for their own lost heritage, "researchers" stand in the long line of those responsible for that loss. Agents of the government had no trouble finding some rationale for destroying American Indian cultures two centuries ago, and for aggressive assimilation at the expense of tradition well into the last century. What makes the findings of researchers so much different from the rationales of the government?

We have come a long way since my ancestors butchered their way to the Pacific. Our researchers are beholden only to the truth their science seeks. Our government is (slowly) attempting to redress old wrongs. Our children learn of the horrible past. But I can understand if an American Indian tells me, "That's not enough." My forebears took away his identity.

There are 9,000 years between us and the Sumerians of the ancient Near East. Even though we have remains and artifacts, their culture is a mystery. Their world didn't last, and they were conquered by another people, who were then conquered and lost, and so on. There is no living 9,000 year-old culture. They just don't last that long.

I would consider American Indian's claims to Kenewick ancestry and insistence on burial of the remains according to modern (remembered or rediscovered) rites to be revisionist and silly. But I have an unbroken heritage.

I have an unbroken identity.
posted by dfowler at 10:57 AM on February 10, 2004

well i guess your the smartone then dflower good for you brains.
can yoiu tell me why the muckleshoots and tulalips got allof the player terminals “As of Yesteday” or you cant cuse youre intellagents is artoficiall

posted by mcgraw at 11:02 AM on February 10, 2004

That opens up a whole can of worms, if you pardon the expression.

What's the can of worms? There's a law that specifies a process for Indian tribes to effectually object to someone digging up one of their ancestors. AFAIK, Kennewick Man is not an ancestor of any of the objecting tribes, and so their objection isn't relevant.

It's entirely possible that KM really is an ancestor of one or another of the tribes, and that the analysis so far has been wrong in its thinking that KM seems to be closer to Ainu than anything else.

But I can't see much good reason in simply taking on face value the claim that this particular person from 9,000 years ago is an ancestor of a particular Indian tribe. There's ample opportunity for KM to be a member of a different, extinct tribe of paleo-Indians, or to otherwise be someone else's, or nobody's, ancestor.

Surely the determination of ancestor-or-not is better made by whatever assessment can be made of the corpse and its surroundings than by a simple assertion that it must be so. If there's a conflict between available physical evidence and cultural tradition, available physical evidence is the more accurate.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:09 AM on February 10, 2004

Here's a previous thread on the first Americans, and here's one on the Ainu.
posted by homunculus at 11:11 AM on February 10, 2004

Versions of the word "correct" have been used a few times in this thread. That always makes me nervous when I hear things like "simply factually incorrect." Isn't correctness a matter of perspective, at least a little? I'm not saying all things are relative--gravity pretty much works all the time--but in this case at least I think things are little bit more complicated.
posted by josephtate at 11:12 AM on February 10, 2004


hahaha tha'ts a goodone.
posted by dfowler at 11:19 AM on February 10, 2004

Dfowler --

Thanks for the considered response. Sorry for being so vague and hasty with this, but I'm at work, and I can tell there's not a lot of interest in this thread, and I would really like those who've dropped in to consider this with me. Also, I really can't offer you any answers. I'm still exploring my own questions about this myself (wanna know where I am? Here and here).

I just know that I saw a headline on this story that read "Science trumps ritual in mystery skeleton row." Like it was a soccer game or something. That's so simplistic and reductive, when the story included not one single Native American voice. And I fear that's how too many people are coming to this story, and just how they're leaving it.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 11:21 AM on February 10, 2004

it's really as simple as ireland. the troubles there have forever been depicted by outsiders as a snit between catholics and protestants. absurdly reductive. misses the entire point, even. quite deliberately, i would say.
posted by quonsar at 1:13 PM on February 10, 2004

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