PORTLAND, Ore. - A June trial date has been set in this northwestern city to determine control over the 9,400-year-old bones known commonly as Kennewick Man.
The discovery of these ancient remains two years ago in southern Washington has ignited a controversy that in simplest terms pits traditional American Indian religion against western science.
The issue, however, has far greater implications about the pre-history of the Americas and has forced some former adversaries to rethink old theories and even find common ground.
The controversy erupted when several early reports claimed Kennewick Man had Caucasian features, which led to a wide array of wild speculations with possible implications for modern American Indians.
Many anti-Indian advocates immediately latched onto Kennewick Man through some strange twists in logic to proclaim he was evidence Caucasian people were the original landlords of North America. A white supremacist group tried to join the lawsuit, though they later backed out.
This was a chilling message sent to American Indian tribes who worried that implications surrounding the remains would jeopardize their modern standing as the Indigenous inhabitants of the land.
A group of five Northwestern tribes oppose a group of eight anthropologists, including one from the Smithsonian Institution who claim they are being discriminated against because their non-Native heritage precludes them from access to the remains.
Several tribal members say their legends say they have been on that land since the beginning and Kennewick Man, by this reasoning, must be one of their ancestors.
The issue has become so clouded a pair of friendly adversaries have reached similar conclusions that attempt to cut through all the political, social and scientific posturing that surround the ancient remains.
Noted American Indian social critic and author Vine Deloria and David Hurst Thomas, director of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History have resolutions on this and several other related issues that may spell a major reconsideration of the pre-history of North America.
First, in regard to Kennewick Man, Thomas points out that it was incredibly irresponsible to label Kennewick Man as "Caucasian." Modern racial categorizations are not valid when talking about nearly 10,000-year-old remains. The flora, fauna, climate conditions and several other factors have been so altered in the ensuing time as to render modern definitions obsolete.
"It's almost impossible to do a racial composition on a recent corpse. So, when we're talking about an era when modern racial classifications had yet to take shape, it's irresponsible to say this is white or Indian as we know it today," Thomas says.
His book, "Skull Wars," is due out this spring. In it he argues that the problems associated with the Kennewick Man find are more of a political argument than a simple religion versus science debate.
On one side are scientists who want to study the bones within the framework of their established views of the peopling of the Americas. Notably their framework includes the Bering Strait theory that says American Indians descended from Asiatic peoples who crossed the Siberian-Alaskan land bridge that opened up during the last ice age some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
This theory has come into conflict with various American Indian groups who have a wide variety of agendas. Some believe in a strict and dogmatic view of their tribal religions and, like Christian fundamentalists, believe in a literal interpretation of their creation myths. Others like Deloria take a different tack.
Deloria said he believes the real pre-history of North America included grains of truth from American Indian creation myths and a more global and evolving view of the pre-history of the Americas. He said that in many of the myths and legends of various American Indian tribes there is a more complete picture of the geologic, biological and social history of the Americas.
Where Deloria differs with those who believe in literal interpretations of these stories is that he thinks that it was not necessarily spiritual forces but natural ones which contributed to these events.
Both Thomas and Deloria point to the story of the Klamath Indians in Northern California. Their ancestors witnessed the eruption of a major Cascade Range volcano in nearby southern Oregon which blew the former mountain from existence to form Crater Lake some 7,000 years ago.
The story of the cataclysmic eruption became a standard for the Klamath and was first recorded by Euro-Americans in the 1850s some 50 years before geologists arrived at the same conclusion.
Deloria believes many other stories are buried in American Indian legend which are being ignored by the scientific community. He thinks this is to their detriment. Ignoring this aspect the scientists have limited their range.
"Things are accepted as fact only because some so-called expert says it's so. To me, that goes against the spirit of what science is supposed to be. I mean, who are these experts and when they are looking at this from a singular discipline they are limiting themselves," says Deloria who advocates a wider cross-disciplinary approach to the study of American pre-history.
Deloria cites as another example of the narrowness of current scientific theory a prominent archeologist, who in a presentation in New York City a few years ago, claimed fleas brought to the Americas on the backs of domesticated American Indian dogs infected and wiped out several pre-historic North American mammals such as the wooly mammoth.
Contacted about the theory, Deloria's only response was to question whether a veterinarian was present who would be the most likely expert to confirm or deny such a theory. It is this kind of oversight that concerns Deloria most and he says a parallel can be drawn with the exclusion of American Indians and other experts from various fields of discipline.
Thomas agrees with Deloria that American pre-history has not been served well by the scientific community. He also agrees that a more holistic sense of American pre-history is needed and says some of Deloria's ideas are being co-opted by some in the mainstream scientific community.
One is that America had constant contact with various other peoples throughout history. For example the Australian Aborigines made their way to the island continent some 50,000 years ago without the benefit of a land bridge. This means they had to sail on some kind of craft for several days on the open ocean.
Thomas asks if people were able to construct ocean-going vessels that long ago, is it not possible that the Americas had sustained contact with other quarters of the globe. The Scandinavian-based Vikings, for instance, sailed across the open ocean to the shores of Newfoundland about 1,000 years ago.
Thomas says that many Viking legends or sagas have been used by people in various disciplines ranging from the fields of natural and cultural history who examined them for historical eyewitness material.
Both men extend this view to others around the world. The Bible, they say, is a collection of Jewish legends and has proved an invaluable tool as to where and when natural and historical events took place.
They disagree on such things as radiocarbon dating and the possible time periods of pre-historical scientific events. Thomas and Deloria are in agreement that too much of western science has been seen through the exclusive eyes of a model based on western European thought.
"You can't help but see things through the eyes of your culture," Thomas says.
He does not think American Indians and science are mutually exclusive and says he has seen hopeful signs of mutual cooperation. As an example he cites Arthur Parker, a Seneca and prominent archeologist in the 1930s. A scholarship has been established in Parker's name to encourage American Indian youth to enter the field of archeology to gain a broader perspective.
Several recent archeological expeditions into the Southwest included American Indians on the teams and the Chumash tribe has reached an agreement with the University of California, Santa Barbara to co-manage several ancient remains found in the area.
Unfortunately both men believe the Kennewick Man controversy has had so many missteps as to render the real issues obsolete. Deloria believes that the best possible solution from a legal standpoint is to return the remains to the local tribe. Thomas thinks the whole issue has gone so far as to ensure a protracted legal mess.
"Nowhere in the United States Constitution does it give the right to archaeologists to claim property ownership of the remains. They were on the tribe's land and from a purely legal standpoint the tribe should have jurisdiction," Deloria says.
There has also been another unfortunate development. About one-third of Kennewick Man is missing from Burke Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Seattle, where remains are stored. Some remains were tested by scientists for their court case and are therefore accountable. The rest are inexplicably missing and there are rumors the FBI has been called in to investigate.
Speaking in Sacramento earlier this month, poet Gary Snyder, whose work has included musings on the natural and cultural history of North America, weighed in on the subject of pre-historic America.
"I think that as we discover a bigger view of ancient humans such as Kennewick Man, we will find that just because we have more sophisticated devices today, we are not any smarter. In a way ancient peoples were much more interactive and in touch with the natural world and that's the real story here."