- · vol. 1 · no. 2 · January 2001




"To protect their rights--among them the right to dispose of their dead according to their own traditions, and the right to explore their history according to their own definitions--the tribes have taken a strong position in the dispute. For once, the law is on their side."

Bones of Contention
Ann Fabian

Part I | II | III

Taken to the extreme, images of battles among the ancients cast a righteous glow over white violence against Native peoples: nineteenth-century white settlers fought in the name of the late, vanquished Mound Builders--the true and rightful owners of the continent. In a milder form, such ideas perhaps eased whatever qualms of conscience came with conquest: when all was said and done, Indians had no better claims to their lands than the European and American usurpers who came after them. This legacy of disputes over treaty rights and first settlement complicates the simple neutrality that Owsley, Bonnichsen, and the rest of the Kennewick plaintiffs seem so ready to adopt. Perhaps in an ideal world, science is disinterested. Scientists, however, rarely are.

It is not hard to understand why the plaintiffs would like to work on the Kennewick remains. We have happened on only a handful of American bones this old, and scientists are sure Kennewick Man can answer many questions about ancient America. Any anthropologist who solves the riddles of the bones--riddles about everything from ancient diet to the origins of American society--will surely receive accolades from the profession and the public. The plaintiffs, who unfortunately missed the opportunities for collaboration and compromise that NAGPRA encourages, fear that repatriation means reburial. They suspect that once the bones of the Ancient One return to the tribes, whatever information they contain will be lost forever. Lost to the plaintiffs, perhaps. But who is to say that an anthropology reconceived in consideration of Native concerns will not extract plenty of information from old bones?


Yet on some level, I sympathize with the plaintiffs' position. I acknowledge I too experienced a twinge of regret over the repatriation of a collection of Native American skulls, and not a one of them promised to shed light on anything so momentous as who first peopled the Americas. I was just surprised by how beautiful the skulls were and by how much the skulls seemed to tell us, not about the individuals they once belonged to, but about the nineteenth-century Americans who collected them. Last summer I began reading the correspondence of the American naturalist Samuel George Morton. I decided to track down the remnants of the skull collection he built in the 1830s and 1840s. By the time Morton died in 1851, the scientist had gathered in more than one thousand human crania, the bulk of them the skulls of Native Americans. Morton rarely left his native Philadelphia, but with the help of amateur naturalists and doctors in the frontier army, the shelves of his study filled with skulls from the battlefields of Florida and the American West and spoils from the burial grounds of tribes forced off ancestral lands. Morton measured his skulls, but he also cleaned, polished, varnished, and labeled them and then put them on display, inviting the public to visit his collection, free of charge, on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

On his death, Morton's friends donated his collection to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. In 1893, the academy sent forty of the Native American skulls to Madrid as part of the official United States entry in the exposition commemorating the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World. Judges awarded Morton's crania a silver medal. But when the skulls were returned to the United States, tastes had apparently changed, and academy curators decided not to put the bones back on display. The remnants of Morton's collection eventually wound up in the storerooms of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The old skulls are now shrouded in bubble-wrap and sealed in plastic containers, awaiting repatriation.

Morton's collection lost its coherence more than a century ago, but I suspect the beauty of the skulls may have motivated him every bit as much as pure science. Morton collected all sorts of heads--not just the heads of humans, but the heads of birds, mammals, and apes. Viewed from one angle, his cranial collection prompted visitors to consider the small physical things that separated human beings from the rest of creation. While Morton presented his collection as a portrait of the continent's past inhabitants, no doubt visitors saw in the bony forms, the hollow sockets, the toothy grins reminders of their certain future.

But Morton also sorted his skulls by race, measuring the cranial capacity of each of the great families of man. No surprise that white men like him turned out to have the best and biggest heads. His two ways of looking as skulls--as objects that represent humanity and as objects that represent specific races--approximate the two sides in the struggle over Kennewick Man. Should Kennewick Man be made to shed light on a common story of all humanity? Or should he be reserved to a chapter in the history of a particular group?

Morton's collection, of course, has no direct bearing on the case of Kennewick Man. But when I began to look at the correspondence that accompanied the skulls to Philadelphia, I understood why Native communities feel so strongly about the principles of NAGPRA. Morton measured his skulls, hoping to discover in them an index of racial difference. For his empirical project to work, he needed to know who was who among his heads, and so each skull came with a pedigree of sorts, a provenance laid down by Morton's friends in the field. Morton's agents told him how they came by the heads they sent him. Describing their collecting, they detailed the violence behind the scientist's tranquil speculations. One man collected two "fine" Seminole skulls left unburied after the battle of Lake Okee-Chobee. He apologized that "only two out of twelve killed . . . could be taken the others being very offensive." A correspondent from Indiana promised to procure for Morton "the skulls of Chapodicac and Rushynble both eminent chiefs," just "as soon as the Indians are removed from our neighborhood which will be this Fall." And Morton's memoirist described one man who "exposed his life robbing an Indian burial place in Oregon, and carried his spoils for two weeks in his pack in highly unsavory condition, and when discovery would have involved danger and probably death."

Are the plaintiffs in Bonnichsen, et al. v. U.S. the direct descendants of Samuel Morton and his headhunting friends? Yes and no. On the one hand, Bonnichsen and his associates had nothing to do with Kennewick Man's death. As the plaintiffs contend, his life so predates the disputes NAGPRA was designed to settle that it seems absurd to subject his remains to regulations devised to correct excesses of nineteenth- and twentieth-century science. But then again, Morton is a father of American physical anthropology. Perhaps in the Kennewick case, we witness a moment when the sins of the father are indeed visited on the sons. Little wonder that an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust surrounds the case.

The plaintiffs in the Kennewick case have used the media to create an artificially polarized situation, pitting enlightened professionals against narrow-minded reactionaries, Western science against Native mumbo jumbo. But, as I have tried to suggest, the plaintiffs' claim to the moral and intellectual high ground is subject to question. So is their claim to speak for science and the unencumbered pursuit of truth.

For one thing, the plaintiffs simply do not represent the entire range of opinion in the community of "enlightened" professionals. Both Keith Kintigh, professor of archaeology at Arizona State University and president of the Society for American Archaeology, and David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, have expressed support for NAGPRA. They see the law as an invitation to reinvent their profession, as an occasion to replace the racist arrogance that characterized old projects, like Morton's, with cooperation and consultation. Thomas suggests we need to take a broad view of the issues involved in the Kennewick case. It may be easy, as the media have done, to tell this story as a struggle between disinterested professionals and unenlightened Indians, but "[u]ltimately," Thomas writes, echoing sentiments expressed by Umatilla chairman Minthorn, "the Kennewick dispute is not a matter of science v. religion, or even Indians v. scientists. At its heart, the matter of the Kennewick skeleton involves political power and property rights." To protect their rights--among them the right to dispose of their dead according to their own traditions, and the right to explore their history according to their own definitions--the tribes have taken a strong position in the dispute. For once, the law is on their side.

Kennewick Man
Artist's conception of the Kennewick Man. Copyright © Joyce Bergan.
Courtesy The Burke Museum

Mr. Owsley, then, may be right after all. The Kennewick case is about "American history." But perhaps not quite in the way he intended. Our route to the ancient history of the continent is troubled by the history of the last five hundred years. Past relationships haunt the current dispute. Sometime this fall, Magistrate Jelderks will decide how best to dispose of the ancient remains. When the case is closed, Kennewick Man likely will have taught us nearly as much about who we are as a people as about who the people were who dwelled on the banks of the Columbia River nine thousand years ago.

Further Reading: A Note about Kennewick Man on and off the Web

Kennewick Man emerged from the mud of the Columbia River in 1996, only to be caught in the strands of the World Wide Web. To write this piece for Common-place I decided to play the student-researcher and try to reconstruct this story by following Kennewick Man all over the Web. Pursuing Kennewick Man, a sort of model citizen of cyberspace, made me dizzy: there seemed an endless supply of information, an infinite number of links. Consider that the search engine Google lists some 11,100 sites for Kennewick Man and another ninety-three for those inclined to call him Kenniwick Man. The contending parties in the suit (the university-based anthropologists, professional archaeologists, the tribes, the National Park Service, the museums, the newspapers and the networks) maintain Websites with pages devoted to Kennewick Man. The Burke Museum touts its celebrated skeleton on its home page. On your visit to the virtual museum you can even attend a symposium on Kennewick Man and listen to brief presentations by several of the players in the story.

For the local media, the story has also been a good thing. Tri-City Herald maintains a Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Center where you can review the paper's coverage of the case and even sign up to receive by e-mail the breaking news on Kennewick Man. You can also read the story from the point of view of the Archaeological Institute of America. Or from "America's Leading Indian News Source," Indian Country. Or from the Journal of Indian Justice. By following the links offered by Friends of America's Past, you can even give money to the plaintiffs.

When I found the Website that asked for money, I knew I was getting in over my head, and turned to the historian's more traditional printed sources as an antidote. I needed a community of scholars to help sort out the voices on the Web. Last spring, I attended a conference at Harvard's Peabody Museum on the tenth anniversary of NAGPRA and read an article by Scott L. Malcomson, "The Color of Bones: How a 9,000-year-old Skeleton Called Kennewick Man Sparked the Strangest Case of Racial Profiling Yet," New York Times Magazine (April 2, 2000): 40-45, and a book by David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology and the Battle for Native American Identity (New York, 2000). I also found useful Roger Echo-Hawk's "Forging a New Ancient History for Native America," in Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to a Common Ground, eds. Nina Swidler, Kurt E. Dongoske, Roger Anyon, and Alan S. Downer (Walnut Creek, Calif., 1997): 88-102.

Perhaps the best single source on Kennewick Man is Roger Downey's recent Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race, and the Story of Kennewick Man (New York, 2000). Downey, a reporter who has been following the story for the "alternative" Seattle Weekly, sorted out the figures in the case, offering his explanations for their various positions. You can read some of Downey's original columns online. But as the workings of the Web would lead us to expect, Downey has detractors in cyberspace. In his account, he cast Kennewick Man's self-proclaimed Norse kinsmen, the Asatru Folk Assembly, as the New Age buffoons of the story. And not exactly as harmless buffoons, either. Although the followers of Odin dropped their claim to the remains of the Ancient One, Downey paused to note ties of some Asatru leaders to the Afrikaner Resistance Movement and the white supremacist Church of the Creator. The Odinists struck back, using Amazon's readers' forum to denounce Downey's book as "blatent [sic] lies." A reader signing herself "maryscats" tried to give the book no stars at all: Amazon, to her consternation, insisted she give it at least one.

I wish I could say that my pursuit of Kennewick Man on the Web turned me into an adept electronic researcher. Not quite. I confess I reverted to form and consumed nearly a ream of paper printing out the contents of the Websites I visited. In some cases this was useful (particularly with the reports on the Kennewick remains compiled by National Park Service archaeologist Francis P. McManamon but in others hardly necessary. I was also left with the impression that even though this story is a relatively manageable one, I would never be able to visit every Website devoted to it or to assess every opinion expressed on it.

Poor Kennewick Man: nine thousand years of repose interrupted by such a lot of chatter.

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