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9,300-Year-Old Skeleton Sparks Controversy in Northwest

The accidental discovery of a 9,300-year-old skeleton and the resulting controversy over its disposition received national coverage recently, with stories in the New York Times (September 30) and Time magazine (October 14). The conflict arose over the announced intent of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repatriate the skeleton to the Umatilla tribe without further study, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

The skeleton in question is a relatively complete one that was inadvertently discovered in July near Kennewick, Washington, where it had eroded from riverbank sediments on Army Corps of Engineers property leased as a county park. The remains were examined by archaeologist James Chatters and physical anthropologists Grover Krantz and Catherine MacMillan. On the basis of superficial observations, all concluded that it does not closely resemble recent Native American populations in the Northwest and that it has several characteristics more common today in European or Middle Eastern populations. A small fragment of bone was radiocarbon dated at approximately 9,300 B.P. and close examination of the skeleton revealed a Cascade-style projectile point embedded in a partially healed lesion in the pelvis.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (Pendleton, Oregon) have claimed the remains, under the inadvertent discovery section of NAGPRA. On public lands, repatriation priority is given to the tribe having a valid land claim to the area, if cultural affiliation of the remains with another tribe is not clear. The Indian Lands Commission has certified that the area in which the find was made is Umatilla aboriginal land. The Umatilla Tribe has stated that it intends to consult with other tribes in the area regarding the disposition of the remains, but that it does not want additional studies to be done. As described in the articles cited above, a number of archaeologists and physical anthropologists have expressed dismay and regret at this prospect.

In response to the New York Times article, SAA President Bill Lipe wrote the following letter, published in the newspaper on October 4.

To the Editor of the New York Times:

The proposed reburial, without further study, of a 9,300-year-old skeleton by the Umatilla Indian tribe (news article, Sept. 30) highlights some of the challenges posed by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Although it addresses Native American demands for tribal control of ancestral remains, the law does not adequately take into account the fact that genes, culture traits, and language are not inherited in neat tribal packages, but spread, contract, and change fairly independently over time.

When human remains are many hundreds of years old, affiliation with a specific present-day tribe may be extremely problematical. The law assigned the skeleton to the tribe in Washington State on whose aboriginal lands it was found, but provided no way to consider the possibility that this individual might be related to most other Western tribes, or that it might represent a population that had died out. Nor did the law provide for scientific studies to address the interests that other tribes and the general public might have in the early peopling of the Americas.

The Society for American Archaeology hopes that the tribe that has claimed the ancient Washington skeleton will reconsider and permit additional studies to be conducted. In a recent case in southeast Alaska, studies of perhaps even older human remains found in a cave are being planned in consultation with the tribal governments.

The investigation of skeletal remains is often a highly charged issue because of differences between traditional religious and scientific approaches, but other aspects of archeological study are often less contentious. Cooperation between tribes and archeologists is common, and numerous tribes have cultural heritage programs that include archeology.

A recent meeting of our group explored ways to make archeological research more relevant to Native Americans and traditional knowledge more useful to archeology. The papers, most by Native American scholars, will be published next spring, and royalties will help pay for scholarships for Native American archeology students.

William D. Lipe
Society for American Archaeology

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