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Jewish World Review Nov. 16, 2000 / 18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

Government sanctioned historical revisionism? -- FOUR YEARS AGO some human bones were found in a mud bank of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash. Upon examination, it was determined that the bones were nearly 10,000 years old -- making them the oldest, and possibly the most significant, set of prehistoric remains ever found on this continent. Like the Iceman discovered in the Austro-Italian Alps in 1991, here was a breakthrough link with antiquity.

Anthropologists were eager to examine Kennewick Man, and found, to their surprise, that his features were closer to the features of people who once lived in Eurasia or the Pacific than to the aboriginal Indians of North America. (It has been postulated that North America might have been originally settled by migrants from Asia or Europe, or Micronesia, rather than the forbears of today's Indians.) So naturally, scientists were eager to continue studying Kennewick Man.

At that point, five Pacific Northwest Indian tribes made an outlandish assertion: Since the bones were found on land where their forbears lived in the 19th century, Kennewick Man must have been one of their own. Of course, there is no evidence that this is likely, and considerable evidence that it is not true. Ten thousand years is a long time in the human habitation of any continent, and the Pacific Northwest tribes in question -- the Umatilla, Colville, Yakama, Wanapum and Nez Perce -- didn't exist in 6,000 B.C.E. But that didn't stop the tribes: They demanded that Kennewick Man be removed from scientific protection, and handed over to their custody for ritual burial.

If you think the cause of human knowledge triumphs in this story, think again. Ten years ago Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), whichwas designed to redress some of the cultural indignities suffered by Indians in the late 19th century. But like many well-intentioned pieces of legislation, passed in a rush, NAGPRA has proved to be a blunt instrument, prompting a host of aboriginal tribes to harass museums and universities for their collections of artifacts, including human remains. And in the case of Kennewick Man, the final decision rested with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

In the course of the Clinton-Gore administration, Secretary Babbitt's party has been the beneficiary of substantial financial contributions from Indian tribes, and in more than a few instances, the Secretary has issued rulings favorable to tribes who are also benefactors of the Democratic National Committee. So it's no surprise that Babbitt decided that Kennewick Man should be taken from the Burke Museum in Seattle and given to the five Indian tribes for destruction. Fortunately, a committee of anthropologists and archaeologists has filed suit against the Interior Department, and appealed Babbitt's ruling. Science may yet prevail against tribal mythology.

Then again, it may not. It is true that many thousands of aboriginal artifacts, including bones, reside in museums and university anthropology departments; it is also true that not all of those bones and artifacts are subjects of current research. There is nothing wrong, of course, with returning some things that aren't being used, or allowing some bones to be disposed. But abuse of NAGPRA imperils scholarship, and jeopardizes future discoveries, about the earliest inhabitants of North America. And the fact is that there are considerable disparities between what science reveals and tribal oral tradition, which is purely subjective, often fictional and may date back all the way to, say, the 1890s or 1920s.

A good example of this kind of abuse may be found in the recent duel between Harvard's Peabody Museum and the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island, which purports to be aboriginal. It is no surprie to learn that Harvard has been conscientiously shipping objects from the Peabody to Indians all across America -- and it's never enough. Now, the Narragansetts and the Wampanoags of Massachusetts are squabbling over rights to some brass kettles and glass beads in the Peabody's possession, Harvard is caught in the middle, and the rhetoric has grown ugly. Not long ago the chairman of the Narragansett Indian Archaeological-Anthropological Committee sent the following letter to Harvard University: "Your dealings with the Narragansett Indian Tribe have been a process of bogus falsification and bad-faith dealings from the start .... In another setting your actions would simply be considered laughable, sad and pitiful. Your abysmal ignorance is, clearly, something to be pitied, but considering the backdrop of federal law, your actions are wholely [sic] criminal." No good deed goes unpunished.

Obviously, certain Indian organizations, for reasons best known to themselves, are using NAGPRA to harass scientists who may someday determine the truth about our earliest immigrants, whoever they may be. And sad to say, the federal government has handed them a weapon of mass destruction. What is at stake? Nothing less than our knowledge of America's past, and the loss of science at the hands of politics and prejudice.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, The Providence Journal