Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bill aims to ease study of remains

Medill News Service

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings plans to introduce a bill that would make it easier for scientists to study ancient human remains, a sore point with some Native Americans who consider such research disrespectful.

The Pasco Republican said last week he wants to guarantee that ancient remains found on federal land and not linked to modern Indian tribes would be available for scientific study.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, enacted in 1990, allows tribes to claim remains and artifacts of their ancestors for reburial.

Hastings unveiled his proposal at the East Benton County Historical Museum, which houses an exhibit about Kennewick Man, a 9,300-year-old skeleton found in 1996 along the Columbia River.

Native Americans and scientists fought for years over whether the remains should be turned over to tribes or be made available for study. In 2004, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld scientists' right to study the bones, concluding the bones could not be linked to an existing tribe.

Yakama Nation legislative liaison Mathew Tomaskin said he was frustrated that Hastings would propose an amendment to the Repatriation Act without first meeting with members of the tribe, which sits entirely within Hastings' district.

"As a good-neighbor policy, you think he'd consult us," Tomaskin said. "He'd do that with a labor union, veterans, city leaders or anybody else that would be directly affected by legislation he is proposing. We're the largest tribe in Washington, why were we not consulted?"

Hastings' press secretary, Jessica Gleason, said the congressman has been in contact with some tribes, but she was not sure which ones.

Gleason added that the measure does not seek to change current law, which allows tribes to claim human remains that have a "significant connection to present day Indian tribes."

The legislation is an attempt to counter a bill backed by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would allow tribes to claim remains based on a geographic connection rather than a confirmed cultural affiliation.

"It would totally undermine scientific study," Hastings said in a written statement.

Eugene Hunn, a professor emeritus in the University of Washington's anthropology department who has done research in connection with Kennewick Man, said the issue is not clear-cut.

"Native Americans have a very legitimate and sincere claim in viewing the ground where their ancestors are buried as sacred," Hunn said. "At the same time, I'm fascinated to learn whatever we can about the past. Scientists need to recognize that we don't have an absolute right to study anything we want at any time."

Alan Schneider, an attorney for scientists who sued for access to Kennewick Man, said it is important that scientists have the ability to research human remains.

"I think the real repercussion at stake here is whether the American people will be allowed to learn about the American past," Schneider said.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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