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Conversations: Last Word on Kennewick Man? Volume 55 Number 6, November/December 2002

A court ruling on the controversial remains pleases archaeologist James Chatters.

On August 30, Judge John Jelderks of the U.S. District Court of Oregon ruled against the government's 1996 decision that declared the 9,400-year-old skeleton known as Kennewick Man to be Native American, a classification which would require the remains to be turned over to a coalition of tribes for reburial. James Chatters, archaeologist and author of Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), identified the remains when they were found on the banks of Washington's Columbia River in 1996. He talked with ARCHAEOLOGY about the recent ruling and the larger issues raised by Kennewick Man.

What's your reaction to Judge Jelderks' ruling on Kennewick Man?

I experienced a tremendous feeling of relief, followed by a sense of validation that taking a stand for science and advocacy for Kennewick Man had been the right thing to do. The decision validated all that the plaintiffs [eight scientists who wished to study the remains], attorneys, and I have gone through for the past six years. I quickly read the entire 75 page opinion, footnotes and all, and found that most of the central points we have been making, including some I began making the day the bones were taken from my lab (6 years to the hour before the decision) were among the judge's central conclusions. I felt vindicated.

How has Kennewick Man changed your life personally and professionally?

I've always believed that archaeologists must share what we learn with the public. This case has made it possible for me to hone my speaking and writing skills in that direction, which has been a great pleasure. It's also challenged me to learn all I could from Kennewick Man and his contemporaries and in the process I became better acquainted with many paleoamerican specialists. That deflected my attention from my other research interests, however, and now it's time to get re-acquainted with them.

You've made presentations on Kennewick Man to school-age children. Do you find that they understand the complex issues involved?

It varies. Those in the primary grades are fascinated with the idea of discovery, their imaginations piqued by the spear wound. From middle school on, however, they are quite capable of grasping what is at stake here, both for Science and for Indian tribes. One middle schooler, Kaitlin Feeney of Pasco, Washington, won third place in a national history contest with her presentations of the case's historical implications.

How do you think the media has done with this story?

It's been mixed. Some have shown a clear understanding of the issues and intent of the lawsuit and are consistently accurate in their reporting. The New Yorker, most news magazines, Nova and of course this magazine were prominent in that group. Others, particularly tabloids, political talk shows, and many prominent eastern newspapers, fixated on the "Science-versus-Indians" angle and clung to the erroneous ideas that Kennewick Man was Caucasian and that we wanted to study him for that reason. Several big papers, including the New York Times and Washington Post really attacked us on the red herring of race. The more postmodern the editorial board, the more harsh they were.

Why do you think race became such a flash point with Kennewick Man?

You really should ask the people for whom that was an issue. To me, the significant point of the discovery is that Kennewick Man and his contemporaries differ greatly from all present-day peoples. It reopens the question of how and by whom the Americas were peopled. Race is an issue of the present that should not be extended into the distant past.

You're probably one of the few anthropologists ever investigated by the FBI. Can you tell us something about the experience?

I only learned of the investigation indirectly and was never questioned by agents. Even so, it was very intimidating. At any one time I'm working on collections for half a dozen or more projects, any or all of which agents could have seized in their quest for the missing bones. That would have devastated my career and livelihood. I worked assuming anything I said or did was going to be reviewed by the FBI. The fate of the Larsons, who found Tyranosaurus Sue--18 months in prison for "failing to fill out forms"--was never far from my mind.

What's your view on the big questions: where did the first North Americans come from and when?

Taken together, the currently available evidence--of lithic technologies, skeletal and dental characteristics, MTDNA, paleogeography and paleoclimatology of Siberia, east coastal Asia and North America--indicates the first Americans derive culturally from a coastal manifestation of the Upper Paleolithic societies that stretched from Central Europe to Northeast China in the terminal Pleistocene, and biologically from a commingling of that group with peoples who expanded up the east Asian coast from Indochina. They probably reached North America around 15-20 thousand years ago by hopping by boat from food patch to food patch along the south Beringian coast. These people, who probably came in multiple waves, were later supplanted by immigrants from interior northestern Siberia. These later people, the more immediate ancestors of most American Indians, also came in multiple immigrant waves.

How can Kennewick Man help answer these questions?

He adds a piece to the puzzle. As an almost perfectly-preserved, complete skeleton, he will contribute greatly to our knowledge of the physical and genetic characteristics of one of the earlier immigrant groups, since my studies and those of others consistently note his closer resemblance to peoples of southeastern Asia. The spear point in his pelvis also may be offering a clue about one of the later waves. From what I have been able to see of it, it appears to be a classic Cascade point, a representative of a style later found with the earliest human skeletons that fit seamlessly among late Prehistoric northwestern American Indians. The facts that his death comes at the beginning of the Cascade Phase of Northwest prehistory and that the spear point is associated with people who differ profoundly from him in their physical characteristics hints that the transition was not always a peaceful one.

Judge Jelderks ruled that the government erred in its reliance on oral history to link the tribes and Kennewick Man. What role do you think oral history has in the study of prehistory?

Oral history is invaluable as a source of testable hypotheses about latest prehistoric times and as a means for linking fairly recent skeletal remains to specific events and social groups. I've used it that way myself. What the judge objected to was the acceptance of folklore, which is primariy allegorical, as if it were an oral history of the distant past. The usefulness of oral history is limited to the most recent times because it can change with each retelling, depending on the social positions of teller and listener, and the political realities and mores of the time. Past one or two dozen tellings, the importance of actual events is subordinated to the lesson of political content and is ultimately lost altogether.

What's your position on NAGPRA? Is it basically a good idea with some problems in execution?

Yes. We need a law like NAGPRA. We can't silently condone desecration of Indian graves and keep the bones of people's known kin on museum shelves and expect the general populace to see living Native Americans as fellow beings. But NAGPRA is being misapplied as a license for tribes to take control of any and all early skeletons, and, as we are seeing increasingly, any and all archaeological materials. Assisted by government officials, university administrations, and museum boards, this practice threatens to deprive all Americans--North and South--access to the true history of our hemisphere. The law needs to be revised to remove its geography clauses and to limit its chronological purview.

When do you think repatriation and reburial are appropriate?

When any fair person would agree that the culture practiced by the dead was directly antecedent to that of a modern tribe, that tribe is most likely to know how the deceased would like to be treated in death. But that connection rarely goes back beyond a few hundred to a thousand years. For the preceding 6000 years, when no cultural link exists, the dead could be ancestors of anyone of Indian ancestry, including most Hispanics and a significant proportion of African Americans and Whites, all of whom have a legitimate right to the knowledge such remains offer and should have a say in their disposition. For the earliest, non-Amerind individuals, like Kennewick Man, everyone worldwide should have these rights.

Can you explain your view that forensic anthropologists are "advocates for the dead?"

When skeletal remains are found, the forensic anthropologist has an unambiguous role: to determine the identity of the deceased and the potential manner and time of death. Other participants in the legal system have more divided concerns--solve the case, respond to political pressure--and can't focus on the interests of the dead.

Where do you see Kennewick Man in another six years?

I'd like to see him securely preserved, like the Cro Magnon and Neanderthal fossils of Europe, as a national treasure at the Smithsonian, where future generations could learn from him through ever improving technologies. But if this case is appealed or if the federal government or tribes attempt to bypass Jelderks' decision by changing regulations or the law, he might remain in limbo, or dissolve underground.

More on Kennewick Man

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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