Kennewick Man, Media Bias, and NAGPRA

Kennewick Man, Media Bias, and NAGPRA (note: I wrote this in the Fall of 2008, and got around to editing and posting it in Fall of 2012)

The Kennewick Man controversy has possibly altered the landscape of American archaeology and anthropology like nothing has before. It has exacerbated the already turbulent relationship between the archaeological community and Native Americans. In the realm of archaeological finds, it has impacted the American public more quickly and more profoundly than almost anything previous. It seems to be a sort of archetype of current American archaeology. Yet it is but one example of the U.S. Government’s and the American archaeological community’s interactions with the Native Americans. The history of American archaeology has been plagued with ‘racial science’ and disregard for the Native Americans, their desires, and their needs as peoples. The Umatilla Indians have struggled with the Kennewick Man controversy directly, including the detrimental effects of media distortion on the issue. On the other hand, there are increasing examples of American-Indian groups that could be said to be abusing powers granted them by the government where archaeology is concerned.1 Media spin, unclear language in NAGPRA law, and inflammatory language and actions from both the Umatilla indian Tribe, and James Chatters, the initial forensic anthropologist to study the skeleton ‘Kennewick Man’, have served to make the Kennewick Man issue far more complicated than it had to be.

Before the introduction of NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), the various attempts of the government (and others) at protecting the Native Americans were largely ignored, thwarted, forgotten, or just plain ineffective—with the exception of the Indian Reorganization Act, which effectively dismantled the previous Dawes Act, and attempted to give the Indians some tribal autonomy and land base.2 And although NAGPRA hasn’t ended all the difficulties—it has given the Indians some powerful federal backing. NAGPRA in a nutshell states that Native Americans have a right to a proper burial—mandating that all Native American remains and burial artifacts in government museums must be cataloged and available for repatriation to appropriate tribal organizations. Also, any remains or burial artifacts found on federal land that may be connected to a tribe must first be offered to said tribe. This is where Kennewick Man comes in.

Kennewick Man was discovered the 28th of July of 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River during the annual hydroplane races. The discovery of a human skull on the bank of the river was brought to the attention of the local police, and eventually to James Chatters, a forensic anthropologist3. Chatters searched the area and found a very nearly complete skeleton. His first impression was that Kennewick Man was a settler from the 1800’s, based on the remains of an early homestead among the bones.4 However, as he examined the bones, Chatters found a spear point in the man’s hip. Such is unusual—especially for an 1800’s settler—so he sent some samples of bone to a facility to have radiocarbon dating done. The results showed that the bones were ancient—about 9,000 years old. This gave Chatters mixed feelings; this was an amazing find and there was a great story to tell that could be had from studying the remains, but it may not be told at all, considering that local Indian tribes might want to bury the remains, and could be granted that right by NAGPRA.5 Chatters was right; The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation made a claim for the remains—as did several other groups, including the Nez Perce tribe.6 The legal logistics became complicated very quickly, and the lack of clarity in NAGPRA became apparent.

Many voices were speaking about the ancient skeleton, and not many were very clear. Of course, the news media listened to all of them—as generally it should, but often enough, put it’s own spin on things to attract attention. They drew some conclusions that, upon a closer examination, were ridiculous. A great example of this was the oft-quoted statement from James Chatters, “I’ve got a white guy with a stone point in him.”7 Chatters was often frustrated by the twists the media gave to the story, and repeatedly attempted to correct the notion of the remains being called ‘European’ or ‘Caucasian;’ he insisted that it wasn’t the case.

The Umatilla Indian tribe has ended up dealing with quite a hassle, and perhaps they were a bit of a hassle themselves. There are only two repatriations they’ve been involved in, and one has taken thirteen years, and has finalized in the repatriation of some human remains, and a number of funerary artifacts from the former Maxey Museum, now known as the Northwest Museum. 8 The other is Kennewick Man—which, as of 2012 is still in the Burke Museum in Seattle. They have the problem of skepticism toward their religion and their oral history and its validity. This is compounded by different voices, including scientists, politicians, white supremacists, and bad media confusing the issue. Even the Asatru, a Norse pagan group, claimed that Kennewick Man was their ancestor. The issue was blown so out of proportion and distorted by the media so quickly, that clear, relatively unbiased sources have been scarce.

A prime example of these distorted sources is found in National Review in July of 1997. There was an article published entitled “Devolution,” which stated, “Scientists believe that Kennewick Man may represent a people who migrated from Europe over a North-Atlantic land bridge, only to be later subsumed by Indian latecomers. (Might the Indian-style spearhead lodged in Kennewick Man’s side be a clue?) The Umatilla Indians would rather we not know.” This doesn’t present the Indians request in a fair way—instead of telling us why the Indians disagree with the scientists desire to study the bones. Instead they present the Indians solely as opposers of scientific inquiry. It may be granted that the National Review is not peer reviewed—but little that reaches mainstream audiences is, and such is part of the problem. We live in a world that is shaped and presented by the media—often very poorly. The aforementioned article continues, saying, “Although Kennewick Man is clearly unrelated to any American Indians, the Umatillas nonetheless may have a case under a post-modernist provision of NAGPRA.” It can claim such based mostly on ‘caucasoid’ traits forensically determined by the aforementioned anthropologist Chatters. But there are problems with forensics and morphology (study of bone structure) relating to the age of bones.

Scientists have also told us that skull shape and bone structure vary greatly from generation to generation.9 The idea that morphology can help determine a person’s origins or relatives has long been associated with racial typology—a touchy subject for this case.10 And although such does not have to be the case, and morphology can be useful, the terms used can lead back into racial typology again. In addition, morphology tends to apply best within the last couple hundred years, and by a thousand years, it can be pretty uncertain.11 So the idea that such information tells us that Kennewick Man is unrelated to modern day Native Americans is fairly inconclusive—although it may point us in some interesting directions. Instead, it is more likely that Kennewick Man is related to a great many modern day tribes.12

According to the popular opinion, the inconclusive scientific evidence weighs in more heavily than oral tradition. It would appear that we have inconclusive evidence on both sides—until we look at the wording of NAGPRA.

(e) Evidence. Evidence of a kin or cultural affiliation between a present-day individual, Indian tribe, or Native Hawaiian organization and human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony must be established by using the following types of evidence: Geographical, kinship, biological, archeological, anthropological, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition, historical, or other relevant information or expert opinion.

(f) Standard of proof. Lineal descent of a present-day individual from an earlier individual and cultural affiliation of a present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization to human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony must be established by a preponderance of the evidence. Claimants do not have to establish cultural affiliation with scientific certainty.13

Noticing the specific statements “geographical … folklore, oral tradition,” “preponderance of evidence” and “do not have to establish cultural affiliation with scientific certainty,” it can be concluded that such evidence is likely to be taken lightly in court, and dismissed—as it has been for the last 200 years—hence the specific inclusion herein. There are scientists today, who examine with great curiosity the folk tales and oral traditions of many tribes, finding clues to the past there, although this approach isn’t typical.

Religious claims are generally not considered as seriously as other, more analytical or science based claims are, for the simple reason that they often aren’t provable by in court, or in the lab. But when the Umatilla Indians ceded their lands to the U.S. Government, nowhere in such treaties did they cede their rights to their dead, or their rights to a proper burial for them—or their ancestors.14

It’s possible that Kennewick Man came from somewhere else—and thus is not ‘native,’ and so wouldn’t be subject to NAGPRA, but Chatters himself in an early interview said that he was probably born within 200 miles of where he died, and that he is very probably an ancestor of modern American Indians (assuming he had children).15

The Umatilla Indians claim their legal rights to the skeleton. Found on their website is some of the history of their legal struggle. One of their religious leaders, Armand Minthorn, says “…(NAGPRA)… as well as other federal and state laws, are in place to prevent the destruction of, and to protect, human burials and cultural resources.” He also claims the support of four other tribes in the northwest area, all of which have similar religious beliefs. The Umatilla Indians worry about destructive tests in particular and seem to feel that scientific testing in general is a ‘desecration’ of the remains.16 Many other tribes have made similar claims across America, but it is unusual for such an instance to provoke such heated debate among those in mainstream America—it is usually left to the scientists and scholars to sort things out with the tribes.

However, there are those in the scientific community that claim that many Indians are overzealous, vengeful, and/or unreasonable with their claims and requests.

So there are other parts of the story. The Haida tribe, of British Columbia wasn’t satisfied with the usual. From a publication in ‘Politics and Life Sciences’:

…museum workers and officials were required to participate in Native American rituals on the museum grounds for the spirits of the skeletons, as well as to attend a “Feast to Show Respect.” Another request of the Haida was for the destruction of casts made of some of the bones. No scientist will ever be able to study this large collection again.17

These sorts of seemingly vengeful acts may be what some scientists fear– the idea that their profession will come under increasing attack by Native Americans and supporters until the life is choked out of it entirely. Perhaps such is an extreme example– but their have been such clamps on science before in the United States—the Milgram and Stanford experiments in the 1970s. Both of these were also judged based on human rights. Such a position is supported by David Walker, ethnographer.18
The magazine Preservation, claims that “Chatters nearly lost his forensic consulting business because of tribal pressures.”19 If the Umatilla Indians felt that Chatters was threatening their way of life—they apparently weren’t entirely above threatening his. In fact, the first contact Chatters had with the Umatilla Indians after the discovery was a phone call from the cultural resources office of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. It was an irate Jeff Vanpelt, who had been presumably informed by the Army Corps of Engineers.20 Jeff seemed ready to tear Chatters to pieces when he had hardly had enough time to know what he was working with. Jeff continued to exacerbate the situation in other ways by being generally uncompromising and disagreeable, as well as by attempting to discredit Chatters and destroy his reputation with the Coleville tribe of eastern Washington, at which he was somewhat successful (Chatters had worked with the Coleville tribe cooperatively for years).

And interestingly enough, when it was granted that the Asatru could perform their rituals—it was demanded that they in no way alter the state of the bones, yet the Umatilla Indians had been allowed access to the bones, “Scientists complained that the bones were being tampered with in the federal storage facility; and, indeed, various ritual items had been placed among the bones and some bones were missing.”21 The concern here was that the cedar boughs in with the bones would ‘damage’ them, or change moisture content and make studies of the bones more difficult. The Indians also worried about destructive studies—and in putting cedar boughs in with the bones, it’s possible that they could ‘damage’ the bones—skewing information future studies—so it seems ‘damaging’ the bones is defined differently by each side.

It is interesting to note the lack of comparison from the media with regard to other ancient skeletons, or which there have been discovered 3 dozen or more in North America. References to comparable archaeological finds seem not to make it out of the peer-reviewed journals. One of these was discovered after Kennewick Man and is virtually unknown. The site was known to a few as “On your knees Cave,” and is in Alaska, on Prince Edward Island. When compared to the Kennewick Man discovery, the remains found in Alaska have been treated far differently. David Thomas uses the discovery in Alaska to provide a model for a hopeful future in relations between tribes and others in his book, Skull Wars.22 In stark contrast to the discovery in Washington, the scientists who discovered the remains in Alaska chose immediately to notify and work directly with the local Indians, even having natives as interns to help them with the study process. After DNA studies as well as other analysis, the skeleton was turned over completely to the tribes involved. Recently, Timothy Heaton, professor and department chair of Earth Sciences at The University of South Dakota, was invited to a reburial ceremony in Alaska.23 >Such isn’t a far cry from what James Chatters had done for some time when dealing with the Coleville tribe.

There are many things that went wrong to make the Kennewick Man case such a problem. Many hope that the Kennewick Man case will be the last of it’s kind, but that isn’t necessarily likely. There are problems with NAGPRA’s vague wording, and lack of specific instructions in some areas. There are those Native Americans who now have political power, and will not seek to use it for useful and just ends—but may instead use it for retribution on those they consider usurpers to their lands, and desecrators of their ancestors. There are scientists that are becoming more aware of the Native American groups, and their needs, and desires, but struggle with how to compromise with them. And then there’s the media, who aren’t concerned with the resolution of the issue, nor an accurate record of what went on, but instead are trying to be as catchy as possible—even if it puts the wrong spin on things.

Yet there is hope for a more cooperative future, as demonstrated by the Maxey repatriation, and the dig at ‘On Your Knees Cave.’ There must be a compromise, and there must be forgiveness. James Chatters was mercilessly attacked from almost the very start, and it only served to inflame the situation. There were poor choices of words—one Chatters’ part, and more especially on the part of the media—in describing Kennewick Man, who later has been stated to be morphologically similar to any groups living today,24 and finally there was confusion between the Army Corps of Engineers and those more directly involved in the NAGPRA legislature.

1 Elizabeth Weiss, 2001, “Kennewick Man’s Funeral: The Burying of Scientific Evidence.” Politics & the Life Sciences 20, no. 1: 13-18. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 29, 2008).

2 David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and The Battle For Native American Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 64, 182, 191.

3 Virginia Morell, “Kennewick Man: More bones to pick,” Science 279, no. 5347 (Jan. 2, 1998): 25; “A Conversation with James Chatters.” Friends of the Past. Available from (accessed Nov 22, 2008).

4 “A Conversation with James Chatters,”

5 Ibid.

6 Thomas, xxii.

7 Ibid., xx.

8 Becquer Medak-Seguin, “Umatilla tribe to reclaim Maxey artifacts,” (accessed Dec 1, 2008).

9 Thomas,105.

10 Ibid., 37, 113

11 Ibid.,232; Jeffrey Kluger, “Who Should Own the Bones? – TIME,” Time Magazine, March 5, 2006,,9171,1169901,00.html.

12 James C. Chatters, Ancient Encounters, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 65.

13 “NAGPRA: Determining Cultural Affiliation within NAGPRA,” (Accessed Nov 28, 2008)

14 Thomas,235-236

15 James C. Chatters, Ancient Encounters, 65

16 Armand Minthorn, “Human Remains Should Be Reburied,” Ancient One/Kennewick Man, September 1996, (accessed Sept 2, 2008)

17 Weiss, Elizabeth. “Kennewick Man’s Funeral: The Burying of Scientific Evidence.”

18 Thomas,236.

19 Jack Meinhardt, “A Bare-Bones Controversy ,” Preservation Online: Magazine Archives – July/August 2001, (accessed Nov 29, 2008); James C. Chatters, Ancient Encounters, 92, 93, 108

20 James C. Chatters, Ancient Encounters, 57-58

21 Meinhardt, “A Bare-Bones Controversy.”

22 Thomas, 270-273.

23 Phillip Carter, “USD professor to accept award at re-burial ceremony,” September 22, 2008, (accessed Nov 30, 2008).

24 Joseph F Powell, The First Americans: Race, Evolution, and the Origin of Native Americans, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 11. 



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7 responses to “Kennewick Man, Media Bias, and NAGPRA

  1. Brian Broadrose

    A good narrative about a very important issue, though I would add just one thing. Chatters claim that his statements were taken out of context by the media falls flat if you simply track his statements since his encounter with the Ancient One. For example, he did an interview with the talk radio show ‘The Right Perspective’, and as the name suggests this is a far political right leaning talk show. During the interview he chuckled as the hosts described the waves of “violent Beringians” (instead of American Indians) who descended on the lands of the poor “caucasion” Kennewick Man, killing him and dispossessing his lands. He had many opportunities to correct the racist fiction being perpetuated by the hosts, and he did not. So too the program was so impressed with him that they dubbed him the “Solutrean of the year”, for ‘confirming’ their so-called Solutrean hypothesis. You assert that Chatters was “mercilessly attacked” from the get go, as if his critics were to blame and not his own racist contradictions.

  2. Thank you. I must admit, as I wrote this, I was surprised that I didn’t find more information implicating at least a passive willingness to allow these inappropiate comments and positions about the skeleton just stand.

    One has to wonder though, whether it was simply racism, or perhaps a much more nuanced or even thought out decision on Chatters part to allow the media to keep spinning it that way. It didn’t occur to me until much later, that as long as there’s reasonable doubt about exactly whose ancestor Kennewick Man is, that Chatters may have felt that the media spin was a way to make the issue controversial enough that the skeleton would remain in hands that would allow it to be studied thoroughly. Whether or not that was appropriate, it’s politics. Perhaps I grant him too much of a benefit of the doubt, but I must say that the Jeff Vanpelt certainly wasn’t diplomatic about the issue at all, as far as any of the sources I found indicated.

    • Brian Broadrose

      Yes, I agree what you say is a possibility and certainly power is implicated in the kennewick discourse beyond racism alone. At the same time I don’t think Chatters thought process extends that far. I transcribed his interviews with the Right Perspective, and at times he seemed quite oblivious to things. If you extend your thought to the original litigants in the case I think you find much more in terms of calculated actions. Nor could many make the case that the litigants themselves were overly diplomatic in their dealings with the Indians. It was, after all, only about a week or so ago when Owsly became the first scientist actually willing to speak to Tribal representatives. Given the context within which the Kennewick debate continues, and the overall context within which American Indians have had their bodies, artifacts, and culture appropriated, why place the burden upon the Tribes and people like Van Pelt to be diplomatic?
      Nice to see someone giving this some serious thought! Thanks again.

  3. J Rock

    Thanks for writing about this complex issue, Myke. I have a hard time with this one. As an archaeologist, boy do I want those bones studied, but as someone from the Tri-Cities, I would love the local Native American population to be finally treated fairly and respectfully, something I never saw as a child.

    • I think that in the case of Kennewick Man, that the tribe was dealt with unfairly. But I also expect that the tribe would be assertive and diplomatic, rather than inflammatory and aggressive from the get-go. Brian makes a good point that MORE of the burden to be diplomatic should fall on
      the shoulders of the privileged, and I must tip my hat to that, and say that the discussion is far from over, and that the Alaskan ‘On Your Knees Cave’ is a model to be studied for the intercultural interaction that modern anthropology requires.

  4. Lee

    Clearly, neither of you have bothered to read US District Court Oregon’s opinion on this case. When a court decision refers to then Sec of Interior Bruce Babbit’s behavior as “capricious and arbitrary” and characterizes the knee-jerk, exceedingly biased actions of US Corp of Army Engineers as “governmental vandalism”, it’s a strong indication of which side (tribe vs scientists) was guilty of bad conduct. The Umatillas aided and abetted by USCAE intentionally, willfully exposed Kennewick Man to genetic contamination and both the aforementioned parties dealt dirty and deceptively with the scientists. The irony is the USCAE kept Kennewick’s remains in a plywood box loosely secured with tape yet it was the scientists the Umatilla’s prematurely and inaccurately accused of desecrating an alleged ancestors remains. This is a power play, pure and simple. Some tribal leaders and their lobbyists are exploiting NAGPRA in a way that suggests they’ve never heard the old saying “two wrongs don’t make a right”. The tribes often deal with scientists via NAGPRA in a hostile, aggressive, unduly rude way all the while expecting to be treated as if they themselves are deities among us. They live in fear that science will one day prove another group preceded them here.

  5. Paul

    We are desecrating their sacred remains. We are imposing our laws on the Native americans to determine whether we have a right to violate the sanctity of their ancient remains. They work through our legal the system because they have no other choice. So, when you say “two wrongs don’t make a right” then expect them to be puzzled, because their act of defiance, resistance, aggressiveness or hostility are not considered by them to be any shade of wrong. They are fighting for the respect of their ancestor’s remains. We have no basis other than an egocentric imagination to think that the Kennewick man was anything other than Native American remains. Today, it was announce that the “Ancient One” was in fact related to Native Americans. What a surprise! Perhaps, in the future we can just avoid the desecration and testing and give any ancient remains on this continent to the Native American’s for respectful interment.

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