The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes"... ...Marcel Proust

Commentary of the Day - March 4, 2001:  The Case of Kennewick Man - Identity Politics and Science Education:

Two papers at the 2001 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science provided sharply contrasting views of the current controversy over Kennewick Man.

For those IP readers who may not have been following this issue, a bit of background is in order.  In 1996 a human skull was found in shallow waters of the Columbia Rivers near Kennewick, Washington that were under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers.  Initially, it was thought that the remains might be evidence of a recent crime, so the skull was sent to local anthropologist James Chatters who worked under contract for the local coroner's office.  Chatters investigated the site of the find further, and found about three hundred and fifty pieces of bone.  He was able to assemble a nearly complete skeleton, which he determined to be that of a male about five feet eight inches in height.

Chatters suspected that the bones were not of recent origin.  He found a stone projectile point imbedded in the skeleton's pelvic region that appeared to have been in place for some years before death since bone had grown around the projectile.  Chatters also found some 19th century artifacts at the discovery site.  Because the skull features appeared to be Caucasoid, he suspected that the skeleton was the remains of a 19'th century pioneer.  Katherine McMillan, an anthropologist from Central Washington University, concurred with Chatter's assessment of the age, sex, height, and racial characteristics.  However, both were surprised to find that the projectile point was of a type that had not been used in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years.  Radiocarbon dating of a small piece of bone from the find at the University of California, Riverside showed that the skeleton was approximately 9,300 years old.

The discovery of a nearly complete skeleton this old on the North American continent is a very rare find, and anthropologists wanted to learn as much as they could about the prehistory of North American from it.  However, in 1990 Congress passed and the President signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  This act has a number of provisions relating to Native American burial sites and the repatriation of Native American remains.  Any remains discovered in the United States that can be shown to be more than 500 years old are considered to be Native American remains.  Under the act these very old remains are to be turned over to the Indian tribe or group of tribes that can show some cultural affiliation with them.  Once it was determined that the remains were ancient, the Army Corps of Engineers ordered all further scientific study of the remains halted and prepared to repatriate them to a coalition of tribes (Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, Wanapum and Colville) that now inhabit the general area.

This decision led to a number of requests from citizens and scientists for permission to carry out further studies of the remains.  Ultimately, a group  of archaeologists and physical anthropologists filed suit to gain access to Kennewick Man for further study, arguing that it that tribes could not prove cultural affiliation owing to the age of the remains.  There have been a number of accusations that the Corps of Engineers did not properly preserve the site where the remains were found, and was acting precipitously in turning them over to the tribes before cultural affiliation had been determined conclusively.  A federal judge ordered the remains into the custody of the Burke Museum of History and Culture at the University of Washington while the case is still in the courts.

In the session on When Science Teaching Is Seen as a Subversive Activity, Cal State Hayward anthropology professor Glynn Custred presented a paper entitled "Religion as a Rationale for Political Constraint on Archeological Research".  This paper was a recapitulation of his paper "The Forbidden Discovery of Kennewick Man", which was published in the National Association of Scholars journal Academic Questions.  (An abbreviated version of this paper has been published online.)  The basic argument that Custred raises in these papers is that Native American groups are using NAGPRA as a political tool to assert sovereignty over archeological discoveries in order to prevent research that might show that other ethnic groups might have populated North America before the ancestors of the present Native Americans arrived.

Custred, recall, was one of the principal architects of California's Proposition 209, which eliminated racial, ethnic, and gender preferences from the state's affirmative action programs.  As a confirmed opponent of "identity politics" clearly he has his own political ax to grind in this controversy.  If it can be shown that the current Native Americans displaced an earlier population from the North American continent, then American Indian arguments for special treatment from the government will be weakened.  Thus, his motivation for additional research on Kennewick Man may not be purely scientific.

So far DNA testing of very small samples from Kennewick Man has been inconclusive, while anthropological measurements suggest that the skeletal features most closely resemble south Asians and the Ainu of northeast Asia.  Present day Native Americans, on the other hand, appear to be descended from north Asians.  This suggests that there may well have been other indigenous groups in North America either along with or before the present Native Americans.

The second paper relating to the controversy was presented by University of Florida anthropologist John H. Moore.  Unlike Custred whose scholarship has focussed mainly on the peoples of the high Andes, Moore has focussed his research on North American Indians.  Moore's paper on the conflicting sacred traditions among Native American peoples was given in a session on the repatriation of Native American human remains and cultural objects.  While Moore is quite sympathetic to the aims of NAGPRA his paper showed that it can be difficult to determine cultural affiliation for remains that are more than a few centuries old.

He made suggestions for the disposition of ancient remains, which if adopted, could go a long way towards resolving the conflicting interests of scientists and Native American groups in these matters.  His first suggestion was that remains found in North America that are more than 2,000 years old but less than 5,000 years old almost certainly are Native American in origin.  However, there is no way to determine cultural affiliation with any degree of certainty.  He proposed that these remains should be interred in a national pan-Indian burial site that would be maintained by the tribes.

Because it cannot be shown with any degree of certainty that remains that are more than 5,000 years old are Native American in origin, he suggests that these remains should be available for scientific study in a national facility that will provide them appropriate respect.

What does all of this have to do with science education?  The Native American position on the repatriation of remains can be traced both to their religious traditions and to their reaction to more than two centuries of marginalization by the federal government.  During the westward expansion Native Americans were subjected to abysmal treatment that amounted to genocide as that word is currently understood.  Nineteenth century scientists frequently failed to treat Indian remains and artifacts with the respect they deserved.  Tribes were forced to abandon their traditional ways of life for an existence in poverty on reservation land that held little value.  Very little was done for the better part of 150 years to provide adequate educational opportunities for Native American children.  The result is that Native Americans are woefully underrepresented in the scientific community.

The discoveries of modern biology, particularly those relating to DNA and the genetic code, show that race and ethnicity are at best transitory concepts.  Populations and cultures change with time.  In the long run, we all are related.  Thus, we all have an interest in how the continents were peopled.  It should be possible to find a way to balance the interests of scientific research on human remains with the need to be sensitive to cultural traditions.  Moore's suggestions appear to be a step in that direction.  However, the involvement of more Native Americans in science teaching and the scientific research process would help to foster greater understanding and accommodation on all sides.

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