WASHINGTON - After years of debate and legal delay, the Department of Interior has announced that remains of a man found along the Columbia River in 1996 are Native American and should be returned to the care of affiliated tribes.
A lawsuit filed by scientists who want to examine the remains was delayed until Interior reached its final decision on the tribal claim. With that decision, scientists say they will ask the judge to let the lawsuit go forward.
Remains of the so-called Kennewick Man have been the topic of a major controversy ever since a group of scientists filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency with jurisdiction over the shores of the Columbia River, claiming the remains were beyond the scope of current federal repatriation law and therefore open to public study.
"After reviewing the extensive cultural affiliation examinations and the history of the Indian Claims Commission findings, the DOI has determined that proper disposition of the Kennewick remains based upon cultural affiliation and aboriginal occupation is to the claimants," said Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt in a letter to the corps.
Claimants in the case, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation, the Nez Perce of Idaho and the Wanapum Band, filed a joint claim for the remains once they were discovered and brought under the authority of the corps four years ago.
However, soon after the corps initially determined the remains should be returned to the tribes, a lawsuit was filed by eight anthropologists who called on the government to conduct further testing considering the age of the remains and it's skeletal characteristics.
When early radiocarbon analysis found the remains were more than 9,000 years old, a debate many thought settled with passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 was reopened. The law requires repatriation of Native American sacred objects and remains to lineal descendants or affiliated tribes.
The tribes continuously called for the return of Kennewick Man, while the small group of scientists continued a legal fight to study the remains based on a claim they are not affiliated with any tribe found today because of the extreme age and bone structure.
"My tribe has ties to this individual because he was uncovered in our traditional homeland," said Armand Minthorn, board member and religious leader with the Umatilla.
"Scientists say that because the individual's head measurement does not match ours, he is not a Native American. We believe that humans and animals change over time to adapt to their environment and our elders have told us that Indian people did not always look the way we look today."
The controversy began in the early summer of 1996 when two college students walking along the banks of the Columbia River came across the remains of a man, unearthed in recent flooding.
James Chatters, an anthropologist based in Kennewick, Wash., was called to the scene by the local sheriff's department to examine the remains to rule out the possibility of murder or foul play. Chatters initially determined the remains were of European descent and possibly an early white settler because of a long, narrow skull and prominent nose.
Once carbon dating of the remains suggested they were more than 9,000 years old, word spread about the so-called the "Kennewick Man." News reports from across the country called the find possible evidence a European had reached America 8,000 years earlier than anyone had ever imagined.
With this new information some within the scientific and anthropological community questioned the ethnic or racial background of the man and his relationship to the local Indian people, even though local tribes claimed they clearly met the criteria for determining cultural affiliation outlined under the law. Under NAGPRA, museums and scientists must return Native American remains to those tribes from whom they are descended and culturally affiliated.
Interior defines cultural affiliation as a "relationship of shared group identity that may be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization with standing under NAGPRA."
The act also requires that if cultural affiliation cannot be reasonably ascertained and if the objects (or remains) were discovered on federal land recognized by a final judgment of the Indian Claims Commission or the United States Court of Claims as the aboriginal land of some Indian tribe, the ownership or control shall be "in the Indian tribe that is recognized as aboriginally occupying the area in which the objects were discovered."
In a treaty ratified in 1859, the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse Indians ceded lands, including those where the remains were found, to the United States government.
Following the treaty all three tribes were consolidated into one group, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. During the 1950s and 1960s, the land where the remains were found was the subject of several Indian Court of Claims (ICC) cases involving tribes on the Umatilla reservation. The final judgment ended with a compromise settlement. Although it did not delineate the aboriginal territory of the Umatilla, the ICC determined several tribes, including the Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cayuse and Nez Perce, "used and occupied" the area where the Kennewick remains were found.
As part of an investigation conducted by Interior at the request of the corps, radiocarbon analysis from three laboratories confirmed the remains are between 9,300 and 9,500 years old. An Interior report states that a "Cascade" era projectile point found in the man's pelvis, possible red ochre on the remains, evidence of deliberate burial and tribal testimony helped establish a reasonable level of cultural affiliation to tribes in the area.
"While some gaps regarding continuity are present, DOI finds that, in this specific case, the geographic and oral traditional evidence establishes a reasonable link between these remains and the present-day tribal claimants," Babbitt said.
And, with that decision, the delayed court case can resume.
"We are trying to ensure that the federal government lives up to its own laws, as well as honoring our policies and religious beliefs," Minthorn said.
"We understand that non-Indian cultures have different values and beliefs than us, but I ask the American people to please understand our stance on this issue. We are not trying to be troublemakers, we are doing what our elders have taught us, to respect people, while they're with us and after they've become a part of the earth."