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Thursday, June 11, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kennewick Man Panel Hears Both Sides -- Tribes, Scientists Continue To Disagree Over The Study Of Ancient Man

Seattle Times Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - One reason the discovery of a 9,300-year-old skeleton on the banks of the Columbia River has captured worldwide attention is that people everywhere seem passionately interested in the story of creation.

But it was clear from a congressional hearing yesterday that radically different approaches to the origin of species may make it impossible for Native Americans and scientists to resolve their dispute over whether to bury or study the skeleton known as Kennewick Man.

One group knows exactly how it came into the world, while the other thrives on the reality that it probably will never know, the two sides told the House Resources Committee.

"We are not worried that study of the remains will change history, or cause us to lose our standing in history," said Armand Minthorn, a leader of Oregon's Umatilla Tribe. "We already know what happened 10,000 years ago. We know we have always been there. The scientists cannot accept that."

"We're seeing a real extremism developing here," Jim Chatters, a Richland anthropologist, said after the hearing. "The tribes basically are saying that they are in control of all human history in North America. They have always been here, and there are to be no more questions asked."

At issue is a 1990 federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Designed to end the robbing of Indian graves and display of those bones in museums, the law requires that skeletons found in areas frequented by Indian tribes be returned to the tribes if it's established that the bones and the tribe are related.

After the skull of Kennewick Man was found by two students in 1996, scientists examined it and other nearby bones and said they were not at all similar to the skeleton structure of modern Native-American tribes living in the region. But the Umatilla Tribe said the ancient man was an ancestor because he had lived in the same geographic region, and the tribe requested immediate reburial.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land where the remains were found, agreed. After a two-year administrative fight and federal court battle, the scientists and the tribe are scheduled to meet Wednesday before a mediator. The Kennewick Man bones have been locked in the Battelle Labs near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland since they were discovered.

At yesterday's hearing, the two sides questioned one another's motives, racial beliefs and interpretations of human history.

To Native Americans, cultural imperialism has led white people to ignore the sanctity of Indian graves for centuries. To them, the remains should get the same respect and protection as bodies entombed at Arlington National Cemetery.

"The remains of our ancestors are buried throughout the country . . .; they are not all lined up in grassy, well-manicured cemeteries beneath headstones bearing name and dates," Minthorn said.

The scientists said they do not want to violate the remains or display them in museums, only study them "respectfully" to learn more about prehistoric times, the origin of diseases and evolution.

The notion of scientists examining the bones of minority cultures brought a diatribe from the delegate from American Samoa, who said his people have suffered through countless demeaning anthropological studies characterizing them as promiscuous, or violent, or something that they don't feel they are.

"You know what, gentlemen, I'm sick of being studied," Rep. Eni Faleomavaega said. "The next anthropologist I catch coming to my island, I'm going to shoot him. There needs to be more sensitivity, more care. You can't just treat this skeleton as a piece of bone."

"It's never enough for scientists," said Maurice Eben of the National Congress of American Indians. "They have to turn over a rock, and then another rock and then another rock. Why don't they ask us? We can tell you what it was like 10,000 years ago."

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, has proposed amending the graves-protection act so that "sound science" will be used to dictate the origin of discovered skeletons. Currently scientific studies can be done, but in cases where it's difficult to link the remains to any known group, factors such as oral traditions or the location of the bones may be used to match the remains with an Indian tribe.

The scientists testifying yesterday said they supported Hastings' measure; it was opposed by the Department of Interior and the Native American tribes.

"No one group has a right to claim that fossil for their own, either us or them," said Chatters. "I think we should do a proper study, then out of respect for the man - whoever he was - I think we ought to lay him to rest."

Danny Westneat's phone-message number is 206-464-2772. His e-mail address is: dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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

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