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Kennewick Man: NAGPRA on Trial "Native Americans and Archaeologists"
February 26, 1999

On July 28, 1996, a well-preserved skeleton was discovered in the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington. Anthropologist James Chatters performed an initial examination of the skeleton on behalf of the county coroner's office. Chatters determined that the skull had characteristics unlike those of modern Native Americans. When a bone sample was radiocarbon dated, it proved to be 8410±60 B.P. (before present), one of the earliest ever found in the New World. At that point, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had jurisdiction over the Columbia River findspot, halted all study and took the skeleton into custody. When the corps attempted to repatriate the remains to Indian tribes, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, who wanted to rebury them, a group of anthropologists sued to prevent the repatriation, insisting that they had a right to study the bones. They dispute NAGPRA's applicability to these remains, arguing that they do not fall within NAGPRA's definition of "Native American." Asked by Judge John Jelderks to clarify several matters, the corps asked for Department of the Interior assistance, and the National Park Service (NPS) became involved. Most recently, the remains were transferred to the Burke Museum in Seattle for study by an NPS team to determine if they are Native American within NAGPRA's definition. If so, the team will try to establish whether the remains are culturally related to any present tribe, which may decide their final disposition. Examination of the remains began on Thursday, February 25, and was expected to be largely completed by the following Monday. According to a report in the Washington newspaper the Tri-City Herald, the NPS team will have 30 days to complete and submit their report to the Department of the Interior. The studies will be reviewed by Francis P. McManamon, NPS Archeology and Ethnography Program chief, to determine whether enough data has been gathered or more analysis is required.

The immediate question of the disposition of the Kennewick remains has been overshadowed in popular media by claims that the skull has Caucasian features (a misinterpretation of the physical anthropology term caucasoid) and that Kennewick Man and other early remains may not be Native Americans but European. Uncritical articles in the New Yorker (D. Preston, "The Lost Man," June 16, 1997) and Discover (K. Wright, "First Americans," February 1999) have sensationalized this, the latter with a cover line reading, "Europeans Invade America: 20,000 B.C." In the course of discussing such matters, these articles have allowed some of the scientists involved in the dispute to air their concerns about NAGPRA and the treatment of Kennewick Man and other early human remains without affording equal space to views of Native Americans. Statements on the case have been issued by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

ARCHAEOLOGY has covered the Kennewick Man story from the beginning, and all of our reports (written by Andrew L. Slayman) are online: Reburial Dispute (10/96), A Battle Over Bones (1/97), Kennewick Update 1 (5/97), Kennewick Man Caught in Catch-22 (6/97), Kennewick Update 2 (11/98), Kennewick Update 3 (2/99).

* The Tri-City Herald maintains a Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Center with news stories, updated frequently.
* A December 1997 letter from Francis P. McManamon, NPS Archeology and Ethnography Program chief, to Lt. Colonel Donald Curtis, Jr., of the Army Corps of Engineers, discusses many aspects of NAGPRA in regard to Kenewick Man.


© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America