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The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets (smithsonianmag.com)
67 points by bdevine 877 days ago | hide | past | web | 24 comments | favorite

Summary: About 15,000 years ago, sea-faring people made their way from what is now Japan along the North Pacific rim to what is now the First Nations region. It was only later that the Bering land bridge migration occurred, those peoples integrating with the first settlers. This article offers a fascinating look into the intersection of cutting-edge archeology and tribal/governmental politics.

If anybody has any insight into the Corps of Engineer's behavior that was discussed in the article, I'd love to hear it.

The politics are complicated; I have several friends who are working archaeologists in the western US and it is a frequent topic of conversation. Since Kennewick Man, there have been a few other extremely old archaeological sites discovered in the same region of North America that support the hypothesis that a different people occupied these parts of North America at one time. The politics are approximately as follows:

The tribes are given enormous legal latitude and power on the basis that they are residing on their ancestral lands since the beginning of time. This is a working legal assumption absent evidence to the contrary. The Corps of Engineers, Department of Interior, et al need to operate with the consent of the tribes for many parts of their job.

The tribes sometimes use this relationship as leverage to gain a variety of concessions out of the government. The Corps of Engineers needs a good working relationship with the tribes as a practical matter or it makes their job very difficult.

Herein lies the conflict: any scientific evidence that the tribes are not in their ancestral lands undermines their political leverage and so they actively attempt to suppress scientific inquiries that may undermine them. The Corps of Engineers and other government organizations that need the permission of tribes to operate are strongly encouraged by the tribes to maintain the status quo or the tribes will make life difficult for them. It is a clear conflict of interest.

In summary, the tribes have a political and financial incentive to suppress any evidence that they were not the first occupants of their land, and they have the leverage in some parts of government to use the government as their agents to enforce that perspective. Consequently, and unfortunately, a lot of archaeological evidence is quietly destroyed or unreported in that part of the country to avoid being held hostage by the tribes.

Well-said; thank you for the reply. Based on what you've said and what the article says and implies, I am inclined to be biased against the tribes in this matter. While there is obviously a long and tragic history that is still in play, it seems to me that if there is an agreement that is in place that allows the federal government (NOT necessarily within the Corps) primacy in determining whether remains belong to some tribe(s), then such tribes have no immediate grounds to claim the remains. I agree that the Corps comes off looking very much like they intended to use the remains as a bargaining chip.

The Corps of Engineers was attempting to obey US Law which presumes that any pre-Columbian remains belong to the local tribes who have complete say over what happens to the remains. The local tribes claim the skeleton is their ancestor, and want it buried instead of defiled.

I'm ambivalent. This is very important science, but it comes at a cost of stomping on Native American rights.

Did you read the article?

The only reason this information took so long to become available, was because scientists had to fight to prove that the provenance of the bones was not Native American. And the article states that the bones are more closely related to the moriori, as it turns out after the study happened more than 10 years later. So no stomping.. This is something that was required to be proved before the bones became Native American property to dispose of by law. The Corp's actions as described by this article, look unethical and against the interests of the American people (and for that matter mine, as a non-American).

There is no reason to believe that there is any stomping on any rights, except the rights of people not to have to make hollow gestures, in order to appease an aggrieved people. At least, that is how the article portrays it.

The article takes a very biased view of the situation. Look at it from the perspective of the Indians. They don't give a shit about our scientific understanding. To them, this is the equivalent of digging up grandpa and putting him on display in a museum. Their religion says they have been there since the beginning of time, so to them these ancient bones are their ancestors. The very process of conducting this study is odious to them.

This isn't just a hollow gesture. The Indians have certain special rights and privilege by virtue of their history, and the federal government has a legal duty to protect their special interests. The federal government is essentially required to take the Indians' side in a dispute like this one.

Also, the Indians have a big incentive not to allow any scientific inquiry that might disprove their claim to "First Nations" status.

This is a cynical way to look at the issue, but I don't see why it's not valid.

At least for the American Indians, not much depends on their claim of being "first nations." Their legal relationship with the U.S. is defined by virtue of their occupancy of the United States at the time of the founding and subsequent expansion of the country, and our displacement of them, and their formal agreements with the United States during that period. I don't think anything would change for them if it was proven that someone else was in the U.S. first.

I'm okay with honoring existing laws and treaties with the Indian tribes, but the scientific evidence strongly indicates it's not their ancestor. Are we obligated to honor what is essentially their version of creationism as evidence of ancestry? Maybe we are, I don't know the wording of the law.

The nature of the federal government's obligation to the Indian tribes goes beyond just honoring treaties and laws. Its more in the nature of a guardianship/trustee relationship: http://www.nihb.org/tribal_resources/indian_health_101.php. The government is not obligated to believe the Indian version of facts, but federal agencies responsible for Indian affairs are not and cannot be neutral parties when others make claims that affect Indian interests.

>Their religion says they have been there since the beginning of time

So? They haven't.

The legal info in the article was not news to me. The litigation is pretty old news; the ethical implications are well-trodden ground. "Ambivalent" means I see both sides; it does not mean I completely agree with Native American side.

It's not your use of the word "ambivalent"; it's your phrase:

  > but it comes at a cost of stomping on Native American rights
If the Kennewick man is not an ancestor of the Native American people, then the Native American people have as much claim to the Kennewick man remains as they would to an ancient Viking's remains. From that perspective, how are their rights being stomped on?

I consider it "stomping" because the law says the remains belong to the tribes. I'm not fond of that law, but it is clear about who pre-Columbian remains belongs to. I'm very surprised the scientists got any access.

The implication in the article is that the Corps of Engineers knew or should have known that the remains were not related to local tribes. They wanted to use the skeleton as a bargaining chip with those tribes; adherence to the law was just a cover for their inexcusable behavior.

The article might lead you to think the Corps was the only one in favor of turning over the remains. That's just not true. The Corp had bi-partisan support in Congress for their actions.

I live an hour from Kennewick. My very rudimentary understanding of the history of the area can account for at least a half-dozen tribes in the area, many of which were nomadic over a vast area and some of which are not represented by the Confederated tribes that were quoted in the article. So, can someone explain to me how a body gets returned to anyone without some forensic evidence that said body is related to those groups? This corner of the world may be a backwater now, but it was once crawling with Oregon Trail pioneers, fur trappers, explorers, and lots of distinct tribes some of whom were not allies. Are these federal laws really so naive to assume any body that isn't instantly recognizable as modern is automatically given to whatever group chooses to assume that it is theirs? Obviously all the local tribes should be part of such a negotiation, but to conduct no due-dilligence would be galling.

But why did they support it? Because they wanted to make a deal with the tribes so they could bring more pork into the district? Or because they genuinely respect the tribe's beliefs and thought the skeleton was related to them?

One of my biggest pet-peeves is when someone uses a process-based argument to conceal their true motives, and the article sure does a good job of painting it that way. I'd love to hear the other side of the story, whether from the relevant Congresspeople or the Corps.

In theory, the Indian nations retain a residual sovereignty within the U.S. as a result of massive abuse, various legislation has been passed to protect their burial grounds, artifacts, hunting, fishing, and water rights. As resources dry up in the Western U.S., there is increasing pressure to renegotiate resource rights. The Indians view our archeological expeditions as basically desecration of their history and religion. They take a pretty hard line stance against such activities. The Department of Interior is involved in its oversight authority over the Indian nations, and the Army Corps of engineers is involved by virtue of its construction of the damns and irrigation systems that make life out west possible (but also make possible the American settlements that put pressure on Indian resources). Those departments have enough to deal with without siding with some archeologists against the Indian tribes.

> It was only later that the Bering land bridge migration occurred

This is interesting. Kennewick man's bones were radiocarbon dated to 8900 years before present, or around 6900 BCE.

I have never heard before that the "Bering land bridge migration" occurred after 6900BCE. That is much more recent than most estimates.

Right, given that as yet no DNA from Kennewick Man is available, I believe it's implied that he may have been the product of intermingling between the theoretical first settlers and the later Bering settlers. No revision of land bridge migration dates would be needed.

Also possible that whatever displaced the Kennewick man also displaced people who ended up in Japan :)

Once the courts had ruled, why didn't/doesn't the Corps cooperate with the scientists, e.g., letting them study the actual spear tip? At that point, they have nothing to lose.

In fact, if they simply handed the bones off to the Smithsonian or whoever, they could've washed their hands of the whole thing. The fact that they didn't do so indicates to me that they wanted to hold onto the bones as a bargaining chip with the native tribes.

If you're feeling silly and want to waste a couple hours, read about the nephilim giant skeletons of north america. It's some top notch crazy X-Files entertainment.

There are thousands of accounts and plenty of photographs of ancient unearthed 9ft tall skeletons in north america. Allegedly the smithsonian has a bunch of them but won't let people look at them.



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