Bones of Contention, by Brad Broberg

Part Four: Who Is Native American?

Perhaps the most fundamental issue raised by this case is the question of who is a Native American. The answer, of course, varies from faction to faction, but few dispute the potency of the question. "What Kennewick Man will be known for is whatever happens with NAGPRA," says Stein.

If Kennewick Man were a few hundred years old, not 9,000, and if his skeleton matched contemporary Native Americans, he would have been returned to the earth in a matter of days or weeks. But his age and appearance provided legal fodder for disputing his protection under NAGPRA.

"Ultimately, it comes down to a political battle," says Hunn. While Hunn acknowledges Kennewick Man's unique characteristics, he has no doubt about his status. "My sense is that if there was a man here 9,000 years ago, he was a Native American."

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Hunn is one of two UW professors—the other being Stein—who've participated in the court-ordered studies to determine whether repatriation is justified under the law.

Stein's work, which involved studying sediments caking the bones to confirm Kennewick Man's age, occurred two years ago. Hunn was part of a four-member team whose work last fall led the federal government to reaffirm its position on repatriation.

Hunn was invited to join the team after writing a critical letter. "It seemed to me there were some misleading perceptions in the public discussion of the issue," he recalls. Primarily, he objected to the twisting of the phrase "Caucasoid features" to suggest a possible European heritage for Kennewick Man. "The idea that you could define Native Americans in physical terms rather than cultural terms seemed to me to be very misguided," he says.

Downey suggests anti-repatriation forces fanned the Caucasoid flames to bolster their argument that Kennewick Man should not be considered Native American. "They were [feeding] the penchant of the press and public for booga-booga stories," he says. At one point, a Norse pagan group, the Asatru Folk Assembly, made claims on the remains before dropping out.

By the time Hunn got involved, the government already had declared that anyone living in North America before Columbus was by definition a Native American. If accepted by the court, that would satisfy one repatriation requirement. However, the government still needed to demonstrate Kennewick Man's ties with a contemporary tribe.

For the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, that's a no-brainer. Their oral history teaches that they have always inhabited the region where Kennewick Man was found. Therefore, the Ancient One obviously is affiliated.

The government, however, sought harder evidence. By taking DNA samples from the bones, it hoped to establish a biological affiliation. And through research by Hunn and his teammates, the feds sought a cultural connection.

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To Hunn's way of thinking, establishing cultural links is a more relevant way of determining affiliation between past and present peoples than biological links. And when technical difficulties derailed DNA testing, it was cultural links that formed the basis for the government's position.

Hunn's task was to comb the records for evidence that the native tongue spoken by the region's tribes today—Sahaptin—is kin to languages spoken there 9,000 years ago. "My conclusion was that as far as we could tell, Kennewick Man may very well have spoken a language related to the Yakama and the Umatilla," he says. "If that's true, you can say they are culturally affiliated by sharing a linguistic tradition."

Chatters—who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit—shakes his head at the notion of establishing a 9,000-year-old cultural affiliation, especially since Kennewick Man was found without any artifacts except the spearpoint in his pelvis. "It's impossible," he says. "It can't be done."

In some ways, says Hunn, maybe it is impossible. But then again, maybe that's not the point.

As a scientist, Hunn would love to see the bones remain available for further study, not buried. Kennewick Man is a rare find with the potential to yield even more information in the future as technology produces new and better investigative techniques.

What's more, as a white man, it wouldn't bother Hunn a bit if someone measured, scraped and pawed the skeleton of his ancient ancestor. "But I'm not an Indian and they do care," he says. "[They believe] the bones of their ancestors are sacred and should be treated as such and not the object of some scientific investigation."

In the end, Kennewick Man is a classic test of the moral boundaries of science, says Hunn. "There seems to be an assumption that science should have carte blanche. I think you can easily come up with examples where that logic is seriously flawed."

On the Web:
Burke Museum Kennewick Man Exhibit

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