Long Live Kennewick

Article excerpt

You've heard of Monica's old dress, the missing billing records, "is is" and all those other clues to classic Clinton cover-ups. But have you heard of Kennewick Man?

Perhaps the last - and positively the most literal - victim targeted for cover-up by the Clinton White House, the ancient skeleton known as Kennewick Man, was ordered last fall by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to be turned over to a coalition of American Indian tribes for burial - and quick, before scientists managed to learn anything about him. Why? The answer to that very simple question takes us into one of those murky battle zones of the so-called culture wars where the forces of political correctness have made destabilizing inroads into the vital preserve of free inquiry.

At roughly 9,000 years of age, Kennewick Man is one of the oldest remains ever found in North America. Accidentally discovered in the summer of 1996 by boat-race spectators in the shallows of Oregon's Columbia River, he presented scientists with a thrilling find: the well-preserved remains of a battle-scarred man thought to have been in his 40s, who, perhaps until an arrowhead in his hip brought him down roughly 90 centuries ago, stood about 5 feet 10 inches tall. Even more intriguing was his surprisingly long face and large, protruding nose - facial features that do not resemble those of any known American Indian tribe.

Could he have had Caucasoid origins? While scientists have also remarked on Kennewick Man's similarities to Polynesian, northern Japanese and southern Asian populations, the initial speculation in the local press suggested he may have been an "early white settler," likely spurring the forces of political correction into instant action. After all, there's no room in "Native America" - that peaceable, environmentally friendly myth of pre-Columbian perfection - for "natives" of the "wrong" color. Indeed, American Indians could hardly claim their uniquely privileged "native" status if it were discovered that they were comparative newcomers to the continent. Clearly, Kennewick Man had to buried - both figuratively and literally.

The Clinton administration seems to have agreed. First, the Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the land on which the skeleton was found, announced it would turn the remains over to Indian tribes for burial. This prompted eight prominent anthropologists, including two from the Smithsonian, to file suit to study the skeleton, a move which has put the big funeral on indefinite hold.

But there's more. In 1998, in an act of near-Talibanesque obliteration, the Corps of Engineers, acting in concert with what a spokesman called "participation and interest at the Executive level," dropped 500 tons of rock and dirt on top of the very spot along the riverbank where Kennewick Man had been found, effectively sealing the site against further study. …