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The Kennewick Man Case | News & Comment

A Blank Check, Arbitrary Decisions, and No Accountability

by Cleone Hawkinson

On Tuesday, February 2, 1999, two government representatives traveled at taxpayer expense to the offices of Dr. David Glenn Smith, at the University of California, Davis. Their purpose was to take possession of a tiny sample of bone fragments (0.9 gram) from the Kennewick Man that Dr. Smith received more than two years ago. One of the officials then flew with the fragments from California to the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington, to store them in the locked vault with the rest of the skeleton.

Dr. Smith had these fragments in his possession since the summer of 1996, shortly after the Kennewick Man skeleton was saved from washing down the Columbia River. As part of the Benton County Coroner's investigation of the skeleton, he was asked to perform DNA studies at no cost to the government. He agreed because of his deep interest in the early peopling of the Americas. Shortly thereafter, in October 1996 he was ordered by the Army Corps of Engineers to stop his studies. Dr. Smith complied and locked the sample away, in a specially sealed container.

These tiny fragments are extremely valuable for two reasons. First, they are the only bone samples directly associated with the C14 date obtained by scientists at UC Riverside. This date indicates that the skeleton is more than 9,000 years old. Second, because of Dr. Smith's stringent laboratory procedures, the bone sample in his possession has had less exposure to potential DNA contamination than the rest of the skeleton.

Army Corps documents show that literally dozens of people had access to the skeleton after the Corps assumed custody. It is also known that because some of the bones were damp when they were transferred to the Corps possession, their plastic bags were left open for more than a year, before they were sealed in November, 1997. Further, cedar boughs placed with the bones during religious ceremonies in 1996 were not removed until this repackaging occurred. The government has stated that none of these concerns is important. Scientists disagree.

Dr. Smith diligently resisted earlier requests from government officials to return the bone fragments and to release the results of his preliminary tests. His concern was that they would try to extrapolate interpretations from his incomplete tests. Although he is still refusing to release his partial data, he had no choice but to return his samples to the government.

Dr. Smith is also concerned about relinquishing this material to the care of an organization that has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the intricacies of DNA testing. A representative of the Army Corps of Engineers wrote to Dr. Smith instructing him to store the bone in a plastic bag with holes to ensure air circulation around the bone. According to Dr. Smith, following these recommendations would have been inappropriate and might have led to the contamination he was trying to prevent.

The scientific standards for DNA analysis are being established by leading scientists such as Dr. Smith. The field is relatively new, with exciting potential, but scientists have come to realize that minor undetected contamination can lead to false results. As a result, a sequence of tests must be performed, and these tests need to be independently confirmed. With this in mind, Dr. Smith has packaged the Kennewick Man sample in two lots, so that two laboratories can run independent tests to verify the results.

However the work he has done, a partial sequence, is useless unless Dr. Smith is given permission to completes his series of tests. But for the government's obstinacy, Dr. Smith would have already completed his set of tests using some of the best facilities available, at no expense to tax payers, and with no additional risk to the specimen. The remaining lot then could have been transported to a second laboratory for independent tests, at minimal risk and expense. Since Dr. Smith has already prepared his samples for these tests there would be no harm to the rest of the skeleton.

At least one American Indian tribe has requested DNA testing of the skeleton. So why has the government refused to allow Dr. Smith to complete his tests? Why does the government feel it is necessary to incur the expense and risk to move the samples from a secure, appropriate laboratory environment to house them in the locked museum vault with the skeleton? The Burke has no facilities to complete the DNA tests, so Dr. Smith's sample will need to be moved again, at yet more risk and expense. The government says " seems best...", and continues to spend tax dollars without restraint or accountability.

This is not the first time the government has made arbitrary decisions and freely spent tax dollars, when facilities and expertise were available at no cost. In 1998, they refused to allow the skeleton to be moved to the Smithsonian Institution, which had an appropriate, existing facility ready and was willing to receive it. They chose instead to spend an undisclosed sum to renovate an area of the Burke Museum and to pay to house the skeleton there. Their reason then was to avoid unnecessary risk to the bones by transporting them across the country. And yet this is routinely done with archeological materials and rare art objects from around the world.

In the past 29 months, the government has spent over $1,000,000 (not including attorney costs) to prevent the study of this skeleton ( study that would have taken a few months at most and that could have been conducted at no taxpayer expense. Now more money has been spent to move less than a gram of bone (0.03 ounce) from California to Seattle. Even more will be spent to hire scientists to conduct the studies for the government and to continue to postpone answering the questions asked by the Court. Further, this amount does not include the expenses incurred by the plaintiffs and their attorneys in their efforts to stop government censorship of scientific inquiry.

But it's not just about money. The government's pattern in this case has been of a lack of regard for accepted scientific practices, and in some instances a clear bias against scientific activities. Some examples:

  • In December 1997 and in the spring of 1998 more human bones were found at the discovery site. They were taken to the Richland repository, and stored in a box (with animal bones) clearly marked with the Kennewick site identification. However, no one made any attempt to evaluate these bones to determine if they belonged to the Kennewick Man skeleton. The Army Corps' own records were later inadequate to determine if these bones represented bones from the collection.

    Further, when the box containing these bones was illegally removed from the Richland facility on April 27, 1998, no one made any attempt to recover them. Federal officials know who took them, when they were taken, and where they were buried. A federal employee witnessed the burial ceremony. Nonetheless, the Army Corps has stated it will make no effort to recover this stolen Federal property.

  • The government has stated that a reconciliation of the differences between Dr. Owsley's inventory report of the skeleton and their own notes is not needed. Apparently, a scientifically accurate and complete inventory is not important to them. We hope the Burke Museum, as the independent repository reporting to the Court, will insist on knowing exactly what they are responsible for.

  • The government hired three conservators to gather critical information about the skeleton's condition. The government also promised the Court they would create a conservation plan based on the current condition of the bones before the collection was moved to the Burke Museum. However, the government did not allow enough time for the conservators to complete such a plan prior to the move on October 29, 1998. As it turned out, the government's schedule for moving the bones was more important than gathering the scientific information they had hired the conservators to obtain.

    The government will continue to pay at least two of these conservators to finalize their assessment and develop their plan. However, the conservators won't have important osteological information that could have been obtained during the inventory. Although Dr. Owsley has offered to come to Seattle for this activity, again at his own expense, his offer has been refused.

  • The Army Corps' own geologists have stated that restudy of the discovery site is needed to answer the questions asked by the Court. Yet the government refuses to allow such a study.

  • The roots of the trees planted by the government at the discovery site in 1998 are now penetrating the strata. In addition, the decaying coconut logs deposited by the government are changing the chemistry of the soil as time slips by. It is not clear why the government spent $180,000 to 'stabilize' the site in a way that destroys the chances of recovering geological and cultural evidence.

Whether Dr. Smith will ever be allowed to finish his tests, whether an accurate inventory of the skeleton will ever be completed, and whether a permit is issued to study the site in time ( these questions are in limbo. The government seems to have a blank check, with no accountability to anyone for their arbitrary decisions and their lack of resolution of these questions.

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