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Wednesday, June 10, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Kennewick Man And The Man In The Middle -- Jim Chatters' Work On Ancient Remains Draws Praise, Criticism

Seattle Times Science Reporter

HELLS CANYON, Idaho - The powerful Snake River flows below, unseen but always heard. Near the spot where Jim Chatters sits, young scientists flake away thin panels of rock to re-create stone points just as Native Americans had done in ages past. The white-hot heat of midday has passed, replaced by a soft chill and the time-released colors that precede sunset.

It's this time of day that Chatters, an anthropologist whose public profile has skyrocketed lately, loves most, when a hard day's work has etched its memory as sweat stains and aches and pains. When rattlesnakes, black widows and twisted ankles - the hazards of archaeological work in the nation's deepest canyon - remain unrealized threats. When dinner is digested and a thin finger of Jose Cuervo downed (no lime, no salt) and easy conversation follows.

The appealing tranquility, however, is shattered by a lingering controversy that has stalked Chatters here, to a canyon so remote that cell phones can't infiltrate.

Chatters is a Renaissance-man scientist whose interests and skills span various disciplines. But most often he's defined by - and some say unfairly criticized for - his association with the oldest, most complete skeletal remains yet found on this continent.

Say Kennewick Man and you might as well add the words "Pandora's Box" in parentheses. Put Jim Chatters' name in there, too, for he is the determined, steadfast scientist who first examined the remains, drew controversial conclusions and became a lightning rod for groups fighting over what should happen to the valuable bones.

In the two years since the remains were found, Chatters' work, writing and pronouncements have undergone intense scrutiny even as other scientists, tribes and the federal government engage in an extended battle for control of the issue.

It is against this background that a visitor's question buzzes as persistently as the tiny insects that hover near Chatters' face. Given that he finds himself in the middle of the swirling tempest, would he have done anything differently?

His answer comes down to a word he's often used to describe what he concluded to be the origins of the Kennewick Man. Furthermore, the word encapsulates why this discovery has become as controversial as it is significant.

"Now that I know what people are so upset about with the word `Caucasoid,' I'd probably use it a lot less," Chatters said.

Would he use the flash-point word at all?

"It's very hard to describe the whole set of characteristics in a single word without a word," he said. "So it's unfortunate there are so many political connotations to so many of our words now. But we don't have other words to take their place. It's made the process much more difficult."

Description prompts reaction

Chatters based the "Caucasoid-like" description on his anthropological examination of the remains, noting, among the other things, that the skull has a projecting chin and long, narrow brain case. The features add to evidence from other discoveries that suggest the Western Hemisphere may have been populated by waves of Paleo-Americans, some of whom were distinct from and arrived before the prehistoric ancestors of modern Native Americans.

Where such prehistoric people may have come from is unknown. Some think they resemble people of Central or Southern Asia; others note a resemblance to the Ainu people who now live in Japan. Modern Native Americans seem related to people from Northeast Asia.

Whatever the theories, some view the use of "Caucasoid" as simply a race card. Because Chatters has flashed it frequently, moreover, it seems unlikely it will ever return to the deck.

The term is why positions quickly cemented, a Native-American official told National Public Radio interviewer Ira Flatow.

"Whenever you get an individual that jumps right up - from the instant that he gets ahold of this human remains - and says, `Aha! It's Caucasian, it's not Native American,' you know you've automatically set an opposition in place," said Adeline Fredin, director of the Colville Tribe's History and Archaeology program.

Chatters' frequent use of "Caucasoid-like" to describe the 9,265- to 9,535-year-old remains is what makes some scientists also jittery about him.

Lawrence Straus, a University of New Mexico anthropologist who specializes in European hunter/gatherer communities, is among those who consider Chatters' comments "dangerous" to science. Straus made the remark from the podium at a recent Seattle gathering of the Society for American Archaeology. The debate continues in less public forums, such as newsletters.

To say to current Native Americans they are not the first people here and the Europeans may have been the first, Straus said, "is devastating." A resulting possibility, he said, is that Indians, whose custom is to rebury remains, won't want anthropologists to have anything to do with human remains.

Chatters said the issue troubles him as well, but he continues to protest that he wasn't implying race.

"We're talking too long ago," he said. "We're talking about before present-day . . . constellations of physical traits existed. I mean, you take people from 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. They don't fit any modern human group at all."

Chatters' methods questioned

More generally, critics have questioned the completeness of Chatters' examination of the remains, which he performed under contract with the Benton County Coroner's Office, the agency that first had possession of the remains.

They've questioned his measurements, which resulted in a plaster cast reconstruction of the ancient man's face that recalls actor Telly Savalas and Jean-Luc Picard, the captain in "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

They wonder openly about his yet-unfinished report on his findings. In a recent "60 Minutes" interview, Lesley Stahl put a fine point on the criticism, asking Chatters what it feels like to be the Native Americans' Public Enemy No. 1?

Despite lost friendships, personal attacks and, of late, efforts of Native-American tribes to wrest away contracts such as the one with Idaho Power paying for his Hells Canyon research (which is unrelated to his Kennewick Man work), Chatters gives no thought to turning his back.

The middle child of a scientist and a school teacher, Chatters says his personality is still shaped by the toughness he developed after suffering constant bullying as the smallest kid in class and from a stint as a lightweight, high-school wrestler.

A professor once described him as impatient and confrontational.

Chatters said that isn't quite right, contending that he doesn't really enjoy confrontation, though he's not afraid of it.

"If you're a small man and you're assertive, you have a Napoleon complex," he said. "If you're a big man and you're assertive, you're a leader."

Chatters stands a whisper under 5-foot-6. And on the Kennewick issue, the 49-year-old will not stand down.

Interest in science began early

Like his father before him, Chatters has a smorgasbord appetite for science.

Roy Chatters started his career in wood technology and became a professor of botany and microscopy at Oklahoma State University. Then, he learned about radio isotopes and took a job with the National Reactor Testing Station, now known as the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

When 4-year-old Jim showed an interest in science, father and son would wander among Oklahoma coal-mining slag piles, breaking open nodules to find hidden treasures: plant fossils, leaves and snails. Whether it was peering at the fossils or collecting arrowheads in the desert, the pair would record the artifact, assign a number and note its location.

At age 11, Jim Chatters took part in his first full-scale excavation, a weeklong search for bison bones in Idaho's Birch Creek Valley sponsored by Idaho State University.

He finished elementary school in Idaho, then middle and high school and college - receiving a bachelor's degree from Washington State University in Pullman. He also spent a year at the University of New Mexico, drawn by the Southwest's exoticism, "beautiful geology and interesting archaeology."

As a budding scientist, he was drawn to dinosaur bones. As he matured, his fascination branched out into a handful of scientific endeavors: geomorphology, the lay of the landscape and how sediments were deposited; the study of fossil pollen to re-create ancient plant communities; analysis of vertebrates; the study of shellfish and osteology; and the study of human skeletons.

If he specialized in any one, he worries he would run out of things to do and his learning curve would plateau.

"I think people tend to stagnate and get myopic about their own fields," he said. "The advantage of working with many is you see the interconnection with them. It's like working with a tapestry - there's all these different kinds of thread that are woven into it."

His passion is to understand more about the human and environmental prehistory of the Columbia River Basin. How did the basin get to be what it is? How did prehistoric people and fish respond to the climate? How did the watershed influence ancient forest growth? How did sediment from forestless land show its fingerprint in deposits?

He tries to answer these questions without the support an academic scientist typically derives from his or her institution. Chatters is a free-lance forensic anthropologist.

But that doesn't mean his work is considered subpar to those bearing more conventional credentials.

Rob Bonnichsen, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Oregon State University, calls an article that Chatters wrote for the journal Prehistory "the best current synthesis of (Columbia) Plateau prehistory."

Chatters is contributing an article about the past environment and ecology of the plateau and is co-author of an overview of plateau prehistory for the newest volume in a series of Smithsonian reference books.

Tribes express doubts

In viewing the prehistoric tapestry, tribes are most concerned by archaeological threads Chatters has snagged and the conclusions he has suggested.

The Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee in October wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers, on whose land the remains were found in July 1996, that it was concerned that "irregularities" in Chatters' investigation forced the tribe to consider re-examination by "qualified physical anthropologists."

During a brief scientific study last winter of the waterfront park near Kennewick where two students first stumbled over the remains, Colorado-based geochemist Tom Stafford said tribal representatives encouraged him to distance himself from Chatters if he wanted to work cooperatively with them.

Stafford acknowledges, with empathy, that Chatters is responsible for some of the tension directed his way.

"Jim does not lie. He does not pull punches. He doesn't sugarcoat it," Stafford said. "The American Indians - or some of the people representing them - they don't want to hear what Jim has to say.

"Therein lies the problem. To me, the only thing Jim has done is tell the truth."

The nagging truth, Nez Perce spokeswoman Carla HighEagle said, is that, despite all of Chatters' public statements, he has given scant public documentation of his work.

"Was it press coverage he was looking for or was this based on sound scientific methodology?" asked HighEagle, secretary to the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. "Because he's failed to produce a report, it's difficult to say what his motivations are or what his findings are."

She suggested that there may have been more goodwill if Chatters had made the report available and subject to a review.

Chatters says his report is mostly complete - part of the findings were presented at the archaeology conference this spring. He says he just needs to assemble charts and text.

The Nez Perce questions, nevertheless, represent more than idle concern.

The Nez Perce, the Umatilla, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation and the Wanapum Band jointly expressed their concern to U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks in Portland. Jelderks was pulled into the fray by eight prominent scientists who sued the U.S. government to further study the remains and the location where they were found. The case remains in the magistrate's court.

The Colville and the Nez Perce went a step further, passing resolutions distributed to agencies that seek to hire Chatters, questioning his scientific credibility.

Hells Canyon work continues

In Hells Canyon, Chatters is a co-investigator in a research project for Idaho Power to find artifacts and other evidence humans have left on the landscape - be they Chinese miners, contemporary recreational users or prehistoric peoples. Chatters' involvement riles the Nez Perce because some of the property is their ceded treaty land.

The canyon also presents some of the best preserved archaeology among American rivers, said Bruce Womack, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist based in Hells Canyon. This Snake River corridor lists more than 550 archaeologically significant Native-American sites on the National Register. About 100 additional pit-house villages, rock shelters and rock-art sites have been discovered in the past decade.

There's a strong possibility that human bones could be discovered, a new Pandora's Box.

"They haven't said, `We're going to sue you, get Jim Chatters out of Hells Canyon,' " said Womack, who has seen the Nez Perce Tribal Committee resolution. "Based on what's happened with the Kennewick Man, they are concerned.

"I like Jim. I have complete faith in him as an archaeologist," he added. "I know it's extremely heated and emotional. I can understand where the tribe is coming from. But I can also understand where the archaeological community is coming from. Jim happens to be smack dab in the middle."

All HighEagle would say of the resolution is, "I think there was some concerns about him doing additional work about this project, mainly because he had not produced any finding from his first work." She referred subsequent questions to Nez Perce legal counsel David Cummings.

Cummings did not respond to phone or fax requests for a copy of the resolution. Colville legal counsel Marla BigBoy did not return calls for comment. Umatilla spokeswoman Debra Croswell, after consulting with legal counsel, declined comment.

Mark Druss, an Idaho Power archaeologist who is overseeing dozens of surveys needed for the company's relicensing application, said the Nez Perce resolution was passed along internally at the company. It has not yet affected the company's contract with Chatters.

"We support his work and we look forward to working with him for the next three years, pending funding," Druss said. "They're doing really good work getting information that's not only useful to the Native-American history, but the Chinese history in the area, the history of homesteading."

`Stay with it'

Chatters' jaw tightens when asked about friendships lost because of the controversy, of the hurt feelings that still sting. He spits out his answers slowly, as if they were bitter pills he might be asked to reswallow. The Colvilles, for the record, have employed him in the past and specifically asked for radiocarbon dating on skeletal remains only 1,000 years old, he notes with irony.

The allegations that he's unfit to do science at Hells Canyon or elsewhere make him "madder than hell."

Backing down is not the "courageous" thing to do, he says.

What is?

"I think you kind of look at that and work at it as you go along," he said. "It's to try and find a way. You've got to look at yourself and decide whether you're doing it for the right reasons. . . . But stay with it."

Diedtra Henderson's phone message number is 206-464-8259. Her e-mail address is: dhenderson@seattletimes.com

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To this point...

July 28, 1996 - Students stumble upon a partially buried skeleton near Kennewick.

Sept. 5, 1996 - The Army Corps of Engineers, property owner of the site where the remains were found, takes custody of the remains and indicates a willingness to turn them over to Umatilla tribal representatives.

Oct. 23, 1996 - A U.S. magistrate hears a case by anthropologists who want to continue study of the skeleton and of the site.

December 1997 - Scientists briefly conduct more research at the site, and Jim Chatters finds a rib fragment.

January 1998 - A Department of Interior archaeologist allows further scientific study to determine whether the remains are Native American. Meanwhile, the corps says it will proceed with erosion control at the site, with plans to cover 250 feet of shoreline.

March 10 - Portions of both femurs (upper leg bones) appear to be missing from the remains. The Department of Justice is asked to investigate.

March 31 - The corps temporarily suspends erosion-control work.

Week of April 6 - Tons of rock and dirt are dropped on the site. The corps says the work had to be completed before April 15 so migrating salmon would not be harmed.

April 21 - Attorneys for the scientists argue the Smithsonian Institution would provide a more secure location to house the remains. A federal attorney says there is no need for concern.

May 13 - The U.S. magistrate calls for a hearing because a series of incidents "has raised serious questions concerning both the physical security and scientific integrity of the human remains at issue in this action."

May 28 - The magistrate finds the corps is competent to continue as temporary custodian of the remains.

Sources: court records, Seattle Times files and wire services

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WHAT TO DO WITH ANCIENT REMAINS?

WASHINGTON - Native Americans and scientists are scheduled to square off today in a congressional hearing on the law that governs what to do with ancient remains, such as the Kennewick Man.

U.S. Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings, R-Pasco, has introduced a bill that would alter federal law so that anthropologists can examine the bones of the Kennewick Man. Current law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, was passed to end what was seen as abuse of Native-American graves by museums and collectors. It requires that unearthed tribal skeletons be returned to the tribes for reburial.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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