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Spirit Cave & Kennewick September 27, 2000
by Mark Rose

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,

  • "There is no evidence from the early Holocene that one can use to identify a human group that is distinct from other human groups that may have lived in the area. There is no evidence showing which language or languages were spoken in the early Holocene and no evidence suggesting details of social or political organization, territorial boundaries, kinship patterns, religious beliefs, or world." Discontinuities in the archaeological record, shifts in textiles and burial practices, were noted as suggestive that different peoples inhabited the area at different times.


  • "The biological information does not indicate that there is, 'a relationship of shared group identity which can reasonably be traced historically or prehistorically between members of the present-day Indian tribe...and an identifiable early group,' as required by NAGPRA."


  • "There is no evidence that identifies any lineal descendants of the individuals buried in Spirit Cave."


  • There is no geographic, linguistic, or historic evidence indicating how long the Northern Paiute have occupied the Spirit Cave area prior to European contact in the early 1800s and none indicating who, if anyone, lived there at any earlier time.


  • "There is enough available information from the oral tradition to say that there were at least two groups in the area and this means that this line of evidence does not support the argument for affiliation."


  • "Expert testimony from contemporary tribal elders asserts that the Northern Paiute have been in the Spirit Cave area from 'time immemorial' and that this means that there is a relationship of shared group identity between the Northern Paiute and the people who interred the remains from Spirit Cave. However, this testimony does not provide sufficient detail to trace this asserted relationship historically or prehistorically from the present back to the early Holocene."


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:

  • The available archaeological evidence is insufficient to demonstrate continuity or discontinuity.


  • Kennewick Man may have spoken a Proto-Penutian language, but other possibilities cannot be ruled out, in particular, that the group to which Kennewick Man belonged spoke a language that was not Penutian--a language now extinct or ancestral to languages spoken outside the present region--and that the Penutian-speaking predecessors of the historic occupants of this region either displaced this earlier group or arrived after that group had moved elsewhere or had died out. Even if Kennewick Man spoke a non-Penutian language, historic Sahaptin-speakers might have inherited their "cultural core" of knowledge, belief, and practice with respect to their environmental relationships from the earlier group to which Kennewick Man belonged. A legend of Lal'ik, a local summit that is said to have stood above the waters of an ancient flood, might link contemporary Sahaptin-speaking residents of the region to a group that witnessed Ice Age floods. A "cultural memory" of events long pre-dating Kennewick Man may be embodied in the Sahaptin language.


  • Ethnographic and historic evidence suggests the area is within the traditional use area of the five tribes--Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and the Wanapum Band--claiming cultural affiliation with the remains. They are "heirs of succession to the area" according to the expert. "Plateau oral traditions place the historic tribes in their present location since the beginning of time. It is impossible, with any degree of certainty, to demonstrate a continuous line of biological descent using historical and cultural data alone. The oral traditions do however relate to geological events that occurred in the distant past. These events cannot be dated with precision but they are highly suggestive of long-term establishment of the present-day tribes."


  • The biological evidence is not fully evaluated, and the study itself is subtitled "Review of Bio-Archaeological Information." The conclusion notes, as did the archaeological study, that more needs to be done before a definitive statement can be made regarding the cultural affiliation of the remains: "Clearly placing the 'Kennewick Man' within this type of fuller regional investigation of cranial morphology and other osteological and dental traits holds promise for additional study of his possible phenotypic affinity and, based on other types of considerations, his possible cultural affiliation as interpreted under NAGPRA."


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.

* NAGPRA
* Department of Interior Kennewick Site
* BLM Spirit Cave Site
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© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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