Two men from Kennewick, Washington, were wading in the Columbia River on a July afternoon in 1996 when they literally stumbled over the bones of a 9,000-year-old man. The discovery of some of the oldest human remains in North America got archaeologists excited but soon launched them into a fierce legal battle with local Native Americans seeking to protect their cultural legacy.
Now a three-judge federal appeals court panel has ruled in favor of the scientists, who will finally be free to examine the remains thoroughly. The judges determined that Kennewick Man shows no relationship to a modern tribe and therefore is not covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation plan to appeal. Surprisingly, some archaeologists are concerned as well: Robert Kelly, former president of the Society for American Archaeology, fears the decision could disrupt the process of consultation and cooperation that the 1990 act has established.
These days, contentious cases like Kennewick Man are the exception, not the rule. Of more than 25,000 remains linked to specific tribes, most are still in universities and museums with tribal consent. The Kennewick ruling especially calls into question 90,000 other remains that have no clear affiliation with any tribe and might no longer be considered Native American. Although this shift could give archaeologists more control, Kelly would rather see scientific inquiry balanced with respect for Native American culture. “As an archaeologist, I don’t want to say, ‘Look, I’m a scientist, I know what’s best, so you guys shut up and go away,’” he says. “At the same time I don’t want to say that this one group of Native Americans gets to decide what happens to an incredibly important source of data.”