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Notes from the Back Seat

NAGPRA, Kennewick and the American Way

Mark Twain said, “Always do right.” Doing right, he said, “will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Somebody else noted that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Anecdotal proof is found in the records of managing the “Indian problem,” and elsewhere. Twain didn’t claim, I guess, that doing right was easy.

If Twain were alive today, he would doubtless have a comment about the Kennewick mess. My guess is he’d say the Kennewick Gentleman Himself should be the final judge in the matter. Come to think of it, I'd prefer that option if some wretched-bones-in-contention were my own mortal trace.

Only one of the contending factions purports to speak for Mr. Kennewick, presenting NAGPRA as a de facto power of attorney, and showing their tribal memberships as proof of doing right. The main problem with this is that NAGPRA was invented by those claiming its powers. Further, the NAGPRA enthusiasts’ primary interest was in claiming authority over remains having kinship or tribal association. Secondarily, there was the matter of wresting power over certain Indian cultural values from “white people.” NAGPRA is too political, too distant from Mr. Kennewick’s time, place and circumstance, and too politically correct to have the most remotely credible claim to represent what that man of the distant past would wish. NAGPRA does not represent individuals, only contemporary races and religions. NAGPRA does not bear fiduciary instruction except in terms of representing modern people of aboriginal descent. Some of these say my working concept of time as a linear phenomenon is goofy. Perhaps so, but a great, great grandfather is never quite the same as a brother, and should be respected.

Can we turn to the scholarly community to look after Mr. Kennewick’s personal interests in this matter? Unlikely. “Science” demands objectivity and avoidance of bias. The claims for Archaeology’s standing as “a science” are shaky enough without developing imaginary personal relationships with skeletons. (Truth to tell, I have secretly observed both Indians and archaeologists refer to skeletal “specimens” in phrases and tones suggestive of both affection and sense of filiation).

Objective integrity of scientific conclusions is critical. Pivotal discoveries in one’s field offer distinction, power, economic advantage and security to the discovering scholars and the great institutions they represent. We employ archaeologists to find out about the past and offer them a certain amount of honor when they succeed. If the collective “we” did not think it worth-while, we would simply not pay them to do it. As employers, we reserve the right to call some shots, and NAGPRA was a cannonball.

That a person long-dead, a “subject of study,” might have an opinion on the study, were he here to speak it, does not seem to have come up. It should. Would Mr. Kennewick opt for having whatever could be found out about him recorded..... or would he prefer being cat-boxed by his “friends” and forgotten again, forever?

Our most precious historical documents include ethnographic reports based on the testimony of Indians well acquainted with prehistoric values and practices. Sometimes statements made by the “informants” about their participation are found in these reports. My recollection is that most considered the talking paper the only feasible means of preserving their views and memories for access by descendants and others. They thought they had something to contribute to the future and wanted it saved. Since these people were much closer to a prehistoric reality and perspective than are NAGPRA enthusiasts, let me nominate them to suggest whether Mr. Kennewick might have had similar wishes. Perhaps an uninvolved cultural anthropologist could provide us with twenty or so relevant early quotations?

Comments from Gene Galloway, Council Bluffs, IA

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