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Jewish World Review April 27, 2001 / 5 Iyar, 5761

Diana West

Diana West
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Consumer Reports

The last classic Clinton cover-up -- YOU'VE heard of Monica's old dress; the missing billing records; "is is;" and all those other clues to classic Clinton cover-ups. But have you heard of Kennewick Man?

Perhaps the last--and positively the most literal--victim targeted for cover-up by the Clinton White House, the ancient skeleton known as Kennewick Man was ordered by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to be turned over last fall to a coalition of American Indian tribes for burial--and quick, before scientists managed to learn anything about him. Why? The answer to that very simple question takes us into one of those murky battle zones of the so-called culture wars where the irrational forces of political correctness have made destabilizing inroads into the vital preserve of free inquiry.

Kennewick Man is one of the oldest remains ever found in North America. Accidentally discovered in the summer of 1996 by boat-race spectators along Oregon's Columbia River, he presented scientists with a thrilling find: the well-preserved remains of a battle-scarred man thought to have been in his forties, who, perhaps until an arrowhead in his hip brought him down roughly ninety centuries ago, stood about 5 feet 10 inches tall. Even more intriguing was his surprisingly long face and large, protruding nose--facial features that resemble those of no known American Indian tribe.

Could he have had Caucasoid origins? While scientists have remarked on Kennewick Man's similarities to Polynesian, northern Japanese and southern Asian populations, the initial speculation in the local press suggested he may have been an "early white settler," likely spurring the forces of political correction into instant action. After all, there's no room in "Native America"--that peaceable, environmentally friendly myth of pre-Columbian perfection--for "natives" of the "wrong" color.

Indeed, American Indians could hardly claim their uniquely privileged "native" status if it were discovered that they were comparative newcomers to the continent. Clearly, Kennewick Man had to buried--both figuratively and literally.

The Clinton administration seems to have agreed. First, the Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the land on which the skeleton was found, announced it would turn the remains over to Indian tribes for burial. This prompted eight prominent anthropologists, including two from the Smithsonian, to file suit to study the skeleton, a move which has put the big funeral on indefinite hold.

But there's more. In 1998, in an act of near-Talibanesque obliteration, the Corps, acting in concert with what a spokesman called "participation and interest at the Executive level," dropped 500 tons of rock and dirt on top of the very spot along the riverbank where Kennewick Man had been found, effectively sealing the site against further study. The Corps likes to say it simply stabilized the site for scientists--like a cement pair of shoes cures corns--and, as Mark Lasswell reported in the Wall Street Journal, ensured, on behalf of Indian interests, "the protection of any additional skeletal material or cultural artifacts from further revelation." Too bad the Corps wasn't operating in Egypt when Howard Carter and the Earl of Carnarvon discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen--incidentally, about 7,000 years younger than Kennewick Man--to "protect" his remains and artifacts from similar "revelation."

But not even a 500-ton cover-up rids us of the question, Who was Kennewick Man and where did he come from? Last September, four years after his discovery, most of which time he has remained locked away by the government in an Oregon museum, Mr. Babbitt arrived at the answer: Based on oral tribal histories--9,000-year-old oral histories?--Mr. Babbitt concluded that Kennewick Man was of either Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Pierce, Colville or Wanapum tribe origin and should therefore, without further ado (or testing), go to his rest with his Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Pierce, Colville or Wanapum people.

But not so fast. The scientists who filed suit for the right to study the skeleton have not yet had their day in court. The Associated Press reported that their lawyers filed documents in federal court in Portland last week contending that the Clinton administration improperly tried to prevent their research "to avoid a debate over North America's first inhabitants," all the while maintaining what they called "inexcusable" contacts with the five Indian tribes that included "coaching the [Indian] coalition on how to plead its case." The Interior Department, which maintains it has done no wrong, has until May 17 to file a response, and the case is expected to go to trial in June.

This is a landmark case, with profound implications. Should Kennewick Man be forever lost to research for, in essence, fear of what he might teach us about our past, freedom of inquiry will have lost another battle to the forces of political correction--a reason to fear for the future of knowledge itself.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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03/30/01: The sweet sound of slamming doors and clucking feminists
03/23/01: America's magazines and the 'ick-factor'
03/09/01: Felony neglect
03/02/01: Who's sorry now?
02/23/01: 'Ecumenical niceness' and other latter-day American gifts to the world
02/16/01: Elton and Eminem: Royal dirge-icist meets violent fantasist
02/12/01: If only ...

© 2001, Diana West