A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Two recent rulings on the repatriation of Paleoindian remains, from Spirit Cave (Nevada) and Kennewick (Washington) have left many people unhappy and a bit puzzled. On July 26, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) concluded that the Spirit Cave remains, claimed under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) by the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, "cannot reasonably be culturally affiliated with any [Northern Paiute Tribe]." In a September 25 press release, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt stated, "I believe it is reasonable to determine that the Kennewick Man remains should be transferred to the Tribes that have jointly claimed him--Tribes that have inhabited, hunted and fished this area around the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers for millennia. Since the decisions were based on similar criteria, how each was made deserves some explanation
The Spirit Cave remains, excavated in 1940, were believed to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old until recent radiocarbon dating analysis yielded a date of 9,415 +/- 25 B.P. In 1996 the BLM, in response to a request to radiocarbon date of undertake DNA analysis of remains at the Nevada State Museum (where the Spirit Cave remains are curated), contacted Northern Paiute Tribes for consultations. In early 1997, the Fallon Paiute-Shosone claimed the remains and associated funerary objects under NAGPRA and on behalf of all Northern Paiute tribal governments. A preliminary conclusion by the BLM, that the remains though Native American were not affiliated with and living Indian group, was reached in late 1998, and the Fallon Paiute-Shosone requested additional time to gather evidence to the contrary. This was delivered to the BLM in December of 1999. In the currenmt ruling, which can be appealed before October 2, the BLM found that,
The keys to the decision in the case of Spirit Cave thus seem to be identification of breaks in the archaeological record; a conservative view of the geographic, linguistic, and historic evidence; adherence the wording of NAGPRA; and a reluctance to overrule those factors on the basis of Northern Paiute beliefs about their tenure in the region. This is in strong contrast to Secretary Babbitt's statement about Kennewick: "Although ambiguities in the data made this a close call, I was persuaded by the geographic data and oral histories of the five tribes that collectively assert they are the descendants of people who have been in the region of the Upper Columbia Plateau for a very long time."
In making his decision, Babbitt had for consideration the reports of four experts on the evidence of archaeology, linguistics, biology, and tradition, as well as earlier National Park Service mandated studies of the remains. DNA analysis proved futile, however. The expert's conclusions may be summarized as follows:
Both the archaeological and biological evidence concerning the Kennewick remains is ambiguous, incomplete, or both. The repatriation decision, therefore, seems to hinge on an acceptance of linguistic data (though that is not definitive) and oral tradition. Clearly the criteria in the Spirit Cave and Kennewick decisions have been applied differently. One wonders if these differences will be explored in the federal suit by eight scientists seeking to block the repatriation of the Kennewick remains.