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The Kennewick Man Case | News & Comment

Kennewick Man Myths

This article originally appeared in the April, 1999 issue of the Archaeology Newsletter.

By Alan L. Schneider

The Kennewick Man discovery and lawsuit have generated an enormous amount of publicity and discussion in the two and a half years since the skeleton was found in near-shore beach sediment and lag deposits of the Columbia River in eastern Washington. It is probably no exaggeration to say that more has been written and said about this skeleton than any other prehistoric human skeleton ever found in North America. As this process of public discussion and debate has unfolded, certain aspects of the discovery and lawsuit have taken on an almost mythological character. A wide variety of misconceptions and inaccurate claims concerning what occurred, or did not occur, have found their way into the public record. With repetition, they have become, at least in some quarters, part of the accepted "lore" of the case.

This article will examine some of these misconceptions or "myths". They are not the only examples that could be given, but they do illustrate how rational discussion and assessment of this controversial subject has become clouded by misperceptions of what did or did not occur.

Myth No. 1: that local tribes were not consulted when the discovery occurred.

This claim has appeared in a variety of different accounts. The actual sequence of events, however, is much different. The skeleton was originally discovered on Sunday afternoon July 28, 1996. According to government documents, early the next day (i.e., Monday morning) Army Corps archaeologists began the process of notifying local tribes. Among other things, they held at least two separate telephone conferences that morning with representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (the "CTUIR"). Other tribes were contacted soon thereafter. Government documents also disclose that during the month of August, tribal representatives were given frequent updates of the investigation of the skeleton being conducted by the Benton County Coroner's office.

Myth No. 2: that the Army Corps and local tribes were not told of plans to radiocarbon date the skeleton.

This myth is closely related to myth no. 1, and is equally false. According to government documents, as early as August 5, 1996 the Army Corps was aware of the Coroner's plans to radiocarbon date the skeleton. This information was relayed by the Army Corps to tribal representatives. Neither the Army Corps nor the tribes objected to these plans. Government documents also disclose that on August 7, 1996, Dr. Chatters discussed with Army Corps archaeologists the possibility of DNA testing. Once again, no objections were raised.

Myth No. 3: that tribal consent should have been obtained before recovery of the skeleton.

Under federal law, tribal consent is only required for excavations or other recovery activities that occur on tribal land (such as reservations and dependent Indian communities). The Kennewick skeleton was found on property belonging to the federal government, and not on tribal land. Consequently, tribal consent was not required before efforts were undertaken to recover the skeleton.

Myth No. 4: that tribal consent is required for study of the skeleton.

Like myth no. 3, this claim presupposes a legal requirement that does not exist. Federal law does not require tribal consent for study of skeletal remains or archaeological objects found on federal land (or held in a museum collection). Although the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act ("NAGPRA") does require that interested tribal parties be consulted before study commences, their approval or consent is not necessary. Federal NAGPRA experts have repeatedly affirmed this interpretation of federal law. For example, at hearings before a House Committee in June 1998, a National Park Service spokesperson testified that study of the Kennewick skeleton does not require "tribal approval or sign-off."

Myth No. 5: that the Bonnichsen plaintiffs made no attempt to reach a compromise solution before filing their lawsuit.

This claim is not true. Before the lawsuit it was filed, Douglas Owsley wrote to the CTUIR requesting permission to examine the skeleton if the CTUIR obtained possession of the remains. No response to his letter was ever received. Efforts to open a dialogue through the Army Corps were equally unavailing. Plaintiffs and other scientists sent numerous letters to the Army Corps in September and early October 1996 requesting an opportunity to study the skeleton. Many telephone calls were also made to Corps officials during this time period. Plaintiffs were told, however, that no action would be taken on their requests until after the "repatriation process" was completed. At the same time, tribal representatives were quoted in press accounts as stating that the skeleton would be reburied in a secret location and that no study would be permitted. Under these circumstances, the Bonnichsen plaintiffs reluctantly concluded that a lawsuit would be necessary to protect the skeleton until a hearing could be held on their study claims.

Myth No. 6: that Chatters' activities violated federal law.

The facts are that Chatters obtained a permit from the Army Corps that authorized him to collect the skeleton on behalf of the Benton County Coroner. This permit was issued on July 30, 1996, and was made retroactive by the Army Corps to July 28, 1996 to cover all of Chatters' activities from the date of the original discovery. Having obtained this permit, Chatters was in compliance with all applicable requirements of NAGPRA and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 ("ARPA"). The claim has been made that backdating the permit rendered it invalid. However, nothing in ARPA or NAGPRA prohibits this administrative practice. Furthermore, even if such a practice were to be held invalid, responsibility for this matter would rest with the issuing agency (i.e., the Army Corps), not with Chatters. It is a fundamental principle of law that a party acting in good faith is entitled to rely upon a permit or approval issued by a government agency having jurisdiction over the matter in question.

Myth No. 7: that Kennewick Man represents an intentional ritual burial.

This is one possibility, but at this point it is only a possibility. Based on existing evidence, it is also possible that natural causes (such as a flood event) were responsible for Kennewick Man's presence at the site. The skeleton appears to have come from a terrace consisting of flood-derived stream sediments deposited during the last 12,000 years. There is no evidence of a burial pit or cairn, and the only cultural object found in association with the skeleton was the projectile point embedded in its hip. Non-government scientists who were allowed to make a brief examination of the site in December 1997 have reported that the available geologic data are consistent with the possibility that the skeleton was deposited by natural causes. They have recommended that further study of the site be conducted to resolve the question of the skeleton's origins.

Myth No. 8: that the skeleton was found in a known Native American burial site.

This claim is false. The closest known Native American burial site is more than a mile away, and dates to a much later period of time than the Kennewick skeleton. To date, no other human remains have been found at the skeleton's discovery site, and there is no existing evidence indicating that any is likely to be found at that location. However, the possibility that the site could contain other skeletal remains cannot be ruled out. Government restrictions on the December 1997 site survey prevented any systematic efforts to investigate for the presence of other human "burials" (or for any other evidence of past human use of the site).

Myth No. 9: that the skeleton's radiocarbon date was skewed by radiocarbon waste contamination from the nearby Hanford facility.

This myth is wrong for several reasons. First, the December 1997 site survey found no evidence of any unusual site conditions that would bias or compromise the skeleton's radiocarbon date. Second, even if such contamination were to occur, it would not produce radiocarbon dates that err by being too old as this myth would suggest. Instead, the result would be dates that are too young by as much as a few hundred to many thousands of years (since the effect of the contamination would be to increase the level of radioactivity being measured). This is not to say, however, that the skeleton should not be redated. Most radiocarbon dating specialists would agree that more than one date should be obtained for skeletal remains of this age and importance.

Myth No. 10: that all of the local tribes oppose study of the skeleton.

It is true that the CTUIR has been outspoken in its opposition to any study of the skeleton. According to some press reports, however, not all of the local tribes agree with this position. It has been reported that one tribe has asked for DNA testing of the skeleton. Another tribe has apparently indicated its willingness to accept noninvasive studies. It also appears that these tribal differences are not a new development, but rather date back to the original discovery of the skeleton.

Myth No. 11: that the CTUIR has a superior tribal claim to the skeleton.

This is not true. In a letter sent to the Army Corps on September 9, 1996, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the CTUIR conceded that the CTUIR could not demonstrate any cultural affiliation to the skeleton because of its age. The CTUIR is reportedly claiming the skeleton on the basis of oral tradition and its claims of pre-settlement use or occupancy of the area where the skeleton was found. The claims of other tribes are also based on similar geographic and oral tradition arguments.

Myth No. 12: that the Bonnichsen plaintiffs are claiming that the skeleton is not Native American.

This is not true. The Bonnichsen plaintiffs are merely claiming that study is needed to determine whether the skeleton is, or is not, Native American within the meaning of NAGPRA. The government originally opposed this view, but now concedes that study is necessary. The present difference between the Bonnichsen plaintiffs and the government relates to the scope and purpose of study. The government claims that all human remains that predate documented European arrival in an area are automatically Native American within the meaning of NAGPRA. The Bonnichsen plaintiffs dispute this interpretation since the statute's definition of the term Native American seems to clearly contemplate the need for proof of a relationship to a present-day Native American "tribe, people, or culture."

Alan L. Schneider is co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the Bonnichsen lawsuit.

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