Indians and Anthropologists Are Battling over Old Bones

By Horvitz, Leslie Alan | Insight on the News, November 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

Indians and Anthropologists Are Battling over Old Bones

Horvitz, Leslie Alan, Insight on the News

The discovery of an ancient skeleton has set off an impassioned, debate pitting tradition against technology. To the shock of scientists, the federal government has come down on the side of tradition.

The bones were found on the shores of the Columbia River. A skeleton, to be exact, exposed by shoreline erosion. Uncertain about what he had on his hands, the local sheriff solicited the opinion of James Chatters, an anthropologist from Richland, Wash. Chatter's, first believed the skeleton was that of a middle-aged man, possibly a pioneer. Burt radio-carbon analysis by the University of California at Riverside indicated that "Columbia Man" was 9,3000 years old.

More astonishing, the remains appeared to be those of a Caucasian, an assessment based on measurements of skull width, eye and nose cavities and teeth. (Caucasian skulls tend to be narrower than those of American Indians.) And while these by no means were the first Caucasian remains to be found in this country that dated back so far - similar discoveries have been made in the last 30 - they indisputably are the best preserved.

For scholars and archaeologists involved in ancient American studies, news of the discovery could not have been more exciting. Careful examination of these bones, they reasoned, might provide them with a better understanding of early North Americans. DNA and other tests might help answer vexing questions about their diet and behavior.

Even more tantalizing, the bones might provide valuable clues about where these people originated. Certain anthropologists, for instance, believe that some early North Americans came from European stock and migrated to the Western Hemisphere via northern Asia, crossing the Bering Strait by a land bridge that existed 12,000 years ago. This isn't to say that Caucasians, and not Indians, were the first inhabitants of America; rather, the hypothesis suggests that today's Indians have an ancestry which is much more genetically mixed than previously believed.

It was at this point that leaders of the Umatilla Indian tribe stepped in and demanded a halt to the investigation. Although the land where the remains were found was not on their reservation (the Umatilla reservation lies just across the Columbia River in central Oregon), the tribe had a legal claim to it based on a treaty with the government predating the Civil War.

Specifically, the Umatilla's board of trustees, acting on behalf of a coalition of five tribes, called for the bones to be returned for formal burial. In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the area, board member Armand Minthorn contended that there was a "reasonable assumption that the human remains are Native American." In any case, he argued, it would be impossible for scientists to determine any cultural affiliation for the bones, given their age, and that there was no documentation of Europeans living on the land so long ago.

Minthorn also cited the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, legislation passed in 1990 to curb the practice of archaeologists, both professional and amateur, of routinely removing bones and artifacts from Indian burial sites. Many of these finds ended up in museums or private collections. To the Indians, this amounted to sacrilege.

The Army Corps agreed with the Umatilla and seized the remains, refusing to permit tests of any kind on the bones, even barring photographs. The law requires the return of the remains within 30 days, but just prior to the Oct. 23 deadline a group of scientists filed their own complaint in federal court. The scientists are seeking an injunction to block the repatriation of the bones, setting the stage for the first legal test of the affiliation provision of the repatriation act.

According to William Lipe, president of the Washington-based Society for American Archaeology, the repatriation act was improperly conceived. …

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