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U.S. Rules Skeleton Belongs to Indians

Culture: Decision cites cultural affiliations with Kennewick Man. Scientists will press suit to use remains for research.


SEATTLE — Bowing to oral traditions that establish tribal memories as ancient, the U.S. Interior Department on Monday ruled that modern-day Native Americans have "cultural affiliations" entitling them to custody of the 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man skeleton.

The decision places the government squarely at odds with scientists who argue that the remains--which could provide important clues about where the earliest North Americans came from--should be available for further study. Native Americans want the bones reburied immediately.

Few ancient skeletons have sparked as much political controversy as the Kennewick Man, in part because its skull bears so little resemblance to the peoples originally thought to have crossed a land bridge across the Bering Strait from northern Asia.

White supremacists have seized on that fact to proclaim proof that Europeans may have been America's earliest settlers; critics of the federal law that awards custody of aboriginal remains to Native American groups argue that the law should not apply to ancient human remains whose connections to modern-day tribes is difficult to establish.

But Native American leaders applauded Monday's decision and said it was appropriate to return the remains--found four years ago on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash.--to local tribes.

"It gives me a tremendous feeling knowing that this Ancient One has been reaffirmed as one of our ancestors. As tribal people who have lived on the Columbia Plateau for thousands of years, we are eager to rebury our ancestor and give him back to the earth," said Armand Minthorn of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, one of five Columbia basin tribes seeking return of the remains.

But a group of scientists from several universities across the country and from the Smithsonian Institution scoffed at the idea that oral traditions could establish a link across a span of 9,000 years. They noted that government scientists were unable to establish any conclusive linguistic or physical connections between Kennewick Man and the modern Columbia tribes. No measurable DNA could be extracted from the ancient bones.

"Oral tradition and geography. That's it. And no, it's not much," said Richard Jantz, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee. He and seven scientists had sued for the right to study the bones, but their case was put on hold pending the Interior Department decision. The scientists said Monday that they will ask a federal judge in Portland, Ore., to let the suit go forward.

"I don't necessarily completely discount oral tradition in some circumstances, but I don't think anybody's ever shown that oral tradition has 9,000 years of historical depth--and that it's accurate for that long," Jantz said.

But Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said oral histories presented by several tribes provided persuasive evidence that collective memories go back through the early geologic history of the Pacific Northwest--when an ancient glacial lake in Montana melted and flooded to create much of the present-day Columbia basin.

"Although ambiguities in the data made this a close call, I was persuaded by the geographic data and oral histories of the five tribes that collectively assert they are the descendants of people who have been in the region of the Upper Columbia Plateau for a very long time," Babbitt said.

"Clearly, when dealing with human remains of this antiquity, concrete evidence is often scanty. And the analysis of the data can yield ambiguous, inconclusive or even contradictory results," Babbitt said.

In making the finding, the Interior Department relied on a provision of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, under which remains proved to be of Native American descent must be returned for reburial rather than stored in museums. Under that provision, remains found on the aboriginal lands of a modern tribe must be given to the tribe.

John Leshy, solicitor of the Interior Department, said that a court previously had found that at least one of the tribes claiming the Kennewick remains had aboriginal lands along the Columbia River where the skeleton was found.

The decision on the Kennewick remains was in direct contrast to a preliminary determination made by the Bureau of Land Management in August on another ancient skeleton--the 10,000-year-old, partially mummified skeleton known as the Spirit Cave Man, found in Nevada. In that case, the bureau ruled that the remains are Native American but cannot be culturally affiliated with the Fallon Paiute-Shos Tribe or any contemporary group. They are to remain in federal ownership.

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