The battle over the ancestral remains of Indian nations along the Columbia River didn’t begin or end with the famous Kennewick Man case.
Throughout the mid-20th century federal hydropower projects sliced the wild river into a series of slack water lakes. The prospect of flooding cemeteries set into motion the government-sponsored excavation of ancient and not-so-ancient cemeteries. It also set into play the natural sloughing of remains into a widened river channel, remains such as a 9,200-year-old known to tribes as the Ancient One.
Now four tribes – the Colville, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce – are awaiting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determination about which, among hundreds of remains excavated in the 1960s at the Marmes Rockshelter site, will be released to them.
The Marmes site is located 60 miles east from where the Ancient One was found in 1996. Marmes represents 14,000 individual artifacts, among them human remains. Some are as old as the Ancient One and others are as recent as, literally, the parents and grandparents of today’s tribal elders.
At the winter conference of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the culture and elder committee held emotional meetings in which leaders from these and related tribes reflected on the pending Marmes decision, and on the famed case the tribes lost in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004.
Speaking sometimes in Sahaptian and sometimes in English, Joe Jay Pinkham, a Yakama elder and tribal council member, described the anguish of viewing remains, some of which were accompanied by garments emblazoned with family symbols recognized by descendants.
Pinkham posed the questions which these four Indian nations will have to answer as parts of the Marmes collection are returned: What will we do when we find someone from a related tribe? How will we notify them? How will families cope when the remains of close relatives are returned?
The question before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as it determines which remains from the Marmes site to return to the tribes, are different from what they might have been if the Ancient One had never been unearthed.
The operative question now is how far back in time can tribes assert affiliation; if remains date back to the age of say the Kennewick Man are they indigenous? Or are they the skeletal remains of some Paleocene-era travelers who were circumnavigating the globe?
Since a 2004 ruling telling tribes they had not proved that the Ancient One’s remains were those of an American Indian, an argument has arisen for not returning the oldest remains to the Indian nations whose oral histories claim them.
“The court said oral traditions have limited utility when compared to scientific studies done by people like the plaintiffs,” said Audie Huber, intergovernmental affairs manager for the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla’s natural resources department. “That is an affront to tribal beliefs. The oral tradition dates back thousands of years, as it does in many cultures around the world. The fact that some are written down seems to make them more sacred.”
The lingering issue – forgetting for a minute the Ancient One’s remains stored in the University of Washington’s Burke Museum – is that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals left an “opt out” provision for scientists to get around the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, Huber said. NAGPRA provides a process for the return of Native American cultural items, including human remains that are culturally affiliated with tribes, or even Native American remains for which cultural affiliation is unidentifiable. But if scientists argue, as eight did in the case of Kennewick Man, that remains are not the ancestors of contemporary tribes, then they might not have to abide by NAGPRA.
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