Time magazine and Kennewick scientists have turned the image of the Ancient One into a freak show worthy of P.T. Barnum at his sucker-born-every-minute best: “Kennewick Man – The Greatest Show Unearthed.”
There he is on the March 13 Time magazine cover, identified as “9,400-year-old Kennewick Man.” He’s a vaguely Slavic/Franco/Polynesian-looking fellow with dark hair, heavy brows and blue eyes.
Yes, blue eyes. They’re navy blue and baby blue, and glassy, like the creepy eyes of a museum manikin. The left eye has just a touch of gold in it.
Time’s creative rendering is the graphic equivalent of Dr. James Chatters�� 1996 claim to every reporter on the planet that the Ancient One was Caucasian.
Chatters – the local anthropologist the coroner asked to investigate a possible crime when two students found the human remains along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash. – quickly changed his story, claiming he only said his Kennewick Man had Caucasoid-like features and that even a bad scientist would not have used the word “Caucasian.”
As soon as the Colville, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Yakama nations claimed the Ancient One, Chatters teamed up with Smithsonian and other federally-funded scientists to try and prove that the Ancient One came from Asia or Europe and was anything but Native American.
In their zealousness, the scientists lost some of the bones, which remain unaccounted for today, and they sued for permission to study the rest.
Federal judges awarded Kennewick Man to the scientists by creating a legal fiction: that human remains are Native American only after the founding of the United States and older ones are “archaeological resources.” Presto! The Native Ancient One was reclassified as federal property and scientists were able to carve him up.
Time’s blue-eyed Kennewick Man cover promises to reveal “The Untold Saga of Early Man in America,” but the inside pages sport only more teases and skewed visual aids.
The better part of two inside pages are devoted to photographs of the Ancient One’s skeleton, with detailed pictures of his skull, teeth and wounded bones.
Two other pages feature another drawing of Kennewick Man. This time, he is a very pale guy in a tank top and pedal pushers, wearing some weird bustle covering his backside.
Another two pages of graphics (including another picture of the Ancient One’s skull that scientists and Time editors can’t seem to get their fill of) illustrate the “Coming to America – Migration Milestones.”
The main theories depicted include the oldest and largely discredited one, that everyone walked from Asia across the Bering Strait, and the newest, that Native Americans really are French or Spanish and got here somehow across the Atlantic Ocean. Russia’s Lake Baikal region is pinpointed as one of the possible sites where Native Americans originated.
It is worth noting that none of these European or American scientists’ theories allow for the possibility that Native peoples originated here or ever traveled to Asia or Europe. And none of them even mention peoples of Africa as having any part in any transoceanic travel theory.
Time reports breathlessly that Kennewick case plaintiff and Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas Owsley and his team have been “able to nail down or make strong guesses about Kennewick Man’s physical attributes” and that the findings are “clearly worth the wait.”
Time’s list of findings is of all things that have been known since he was first studied in the late 1990s: his approximate height (5 feet 9 inches), that he was muscular and that he was wounded. The only “new finding” is Owsley’s guess that the Ancient One might have been as young as 38, rather than an earlier guess that he was 45 to 55 years old.
The story touts as the Owsley researchers’ “most remarkable discovery” the one that “Kennewick Man had been buried deliberately.” But that finding is not new and it is not Owsley’s.
It was reported in 1999 by National Park Service archaeologist Frank P. McManamon that a scientific team of more than a dozen members, which did not include Owsley or his researchers, concluded in studies conducted between Feb. 25 and March 1 of that year that the Ancient One was intentionally buried.
The fiction that there’s something new here is no doubt prominent in proposals for more federal dollars for more invasive research.
In advancing Owsley’s fictions, Time is not simply his political tool. It is both press flak and propaganda partner.
“Still, the bones have more secrets to reveal,” the Time story pants on. “The researchers may be able to determine whether he preferred meat or fish.”
Whatever were Time’s reporters and editors thinking? How can any study, no matter how creatively speculative, determine his “preferred” cuisine? A study may conclude what was eaten, but not what was favored or even liked.
The last page of the story features (what else?) one more photo of the Ancient One’s skull, this time with Owsley’s face peering into it.
A Yakama Nation delegation attended the presentation by Owsley and his team at a Feb. 23 meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. “We went over to Seattle to hear what Dr. Owsley had to say and we were very disappointed just listening to him,” said Yakama Council Member LaRena Sohappy.
“After the scientists probed and prodded this individual, we thought they would return the remains to us so we could have a burial for the bones,” said Sohappy, who chairs the Yakama Cultural Committee. “Now we understand they are going to send the bones overseas to Japan and China so other scientists can make more determinations.
“This is a disgraceful thing they are doing to the bones, tearing them apart to study some more,” said Sohappy.
Time’s kicker quote is mostly a scold and gets to its own heart in the matter: “If scientists treat those bones with respect and Native American groups acknowledge the importance of unlocking their secrets, the mystery of how and when the New World was populated may finally be laid to rest.”
For Time, the real questions and their answers are to be found in their sub-headlines: “Who Really Discovered America?” and “Who Should Own the Bones?”
Time’s assumption (and hope, it would seem) is that Native peoples are not the original owners of this land. The second question is even more disturbing in its implication that anyone should “own” human remains.
That is the exact reason the repatriation laws were enacted: to get away from the inhumane law that categorized Native Americans as property and to apply international standards of human rights to deceased Native people.
Congress needs to take charge of this matter once again and clarify its meaning – especially for those who are using the European migration game to justify dissolving the repatriation laws. If it continues to do nothing, it promotes this antiquated, barbaric notion that scientists and museums “own” Native American people.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.