THE BATTLE OF THE BONES
December 15, 2012 § 2 Comments
I published recently a transcript of a radio documentary I had made that explored the question of ‘Who owns culture?’. Perhaps the most fractious of recent debates around this question has been over ‘Kennewick Man’, an ancient skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in America’s Washington State. The 9000-year old skeleton became the focus for two major controversies: What is race? And who owns history? I tell the story of Kennewick Man in my book Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate. I am publishing here an extract that lays out part that story, looking at the question of the ownership of culture and history and of the clash between scientific rationality and cultural identity. I will publish a second extract next week that delves into the debate about race posed by Kennewick Man.
From Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008), pp190-195, 204-213, 216-218
Will Thomas was waiting for the start of the annual hydroplane race on the Columbia River, near the town of Kennewick, in Washington State, USA. Larking around with his friend Dave Deacy, he decided to amuse himself by wading through the water. A few yards in, his foot hit something round. ‘Hey, we have a human head’, he joked. But that was exactly what it was – a brownish skull, covered in mud. It was 29 July 1996 – and the beginning of an extraordinary story of skulls and bones, history and politics, race and science.
Thomas handed the skull over to the police, who in turn handed it to Jim Chatters. Chatters is a forensic pathologist who runs an archaeological consulting firm in Kennewick that, among other things, helps out the local coroner identify human skeletons and assorted body parts that occasionally turn up. Chatters’ immediate response was that the skull – with its narrow cheekbones and protruding upper jaw – was from a man of European descent and probably around 150 years old. But when he examined the rest of the skeleton that had been dredged up from the river, he discovered a spear point lodged in the right hip. The projectile had penetrated deep into bone that had subsequently healed over. Doing a CAT scan on the spear point, Chatters was dumbfounded to see a distinctive leaf-shape – deep inside the man’s hip was a ‘Cascade Point’ of the kind that had been used by local hunters some 5000 to 9000 years ago. ‘I’ve got a white guy with stone point in him’, an astonished Chatters told the New York Times.
But how could he have? The only people in the region that long ago would have been ancestors of today’s Native Americans. As every history book tells us, the first European to set foot in the New World was Christopher Columbus in 1492. The first white men this far west would probably have arrived until the beginning of nineteenth century. So how could Jim Chatters have a white guy with a 5000-year old spear point in him?
To clear up the confusion, Chatters sent off a small fragment of bone to be carbon dated at the University of California. The lab confirmed that the skeleton was between 9200 to 9600 years old – one of the oldest ever found in North America. Confused and shaken, Chatters emailed several archaeologists across the country, asking for advice: ‘Subject: Need Help ASAP’. ‘I knew then’, he later recalled, ‘it would get very hot and heavy, which it did within 10 minutes.’
‘Kennewick Man’, as the skeleton became known, created immediate controversy. Despite the historical improbability, Chatters was convinced that the remains were of European origin. At 5’ 9”, Kennewick Man was taller than one would expect a Native American of that age to be. The skull did not show the flattening common among Indian ancestors that used cradleboards to carry infants. Nor were the teeth worn; most teeth from Indian remains were ground down because of the high fibre and grit in their diet. A few weeks after Kennewick Man was discovered, Chatters happened to be watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. ‘There was Patrick Stewart [the English actor who plays Captain Jean-Luc Picard]’, Chatters recalled, ‘and I said “My God, there he is, Kennewick Man!”’. A later facial reconstruction of Kennewick indeed possessed an uncanny resemblance to the chisel-faced space explorer.
Native Americans, however, did not take kindly to the idea that one of their ancestors might have looked like the captain of the Starship Enterprise. And Kennewick Man was one of their ancestors, they insisted, not some wandering European. ‘Our oral history goes back 10,000 years’, said Armand Minthorn, a leader of the Umatilla tribe. ‘We know how time began and how Indian people were created. They can say whatever they want, the scientists. They are being disrespectful.’
Not only in the eyes of Native Americas, but in the eyes of American law, too, Kennewick Man was an Indian. The Native American Graves Repatriation Act (or NAGPRA), a law passed in 1990, describes as ‘Native American’ any remains more than 500 years old – in other words anyone in the New World before Columbus arrived. Under the law, any such remains must be handed over to the local Indian tribe for reburial. Five tribes from the Washington region – Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Colville and Wanapum – demanded, therefore, that the bones of Kennewick Man be returned to them. They insisted, too, that there should be no scientific study of the bones. Any such study, they argued, would be to desecrate the body of one of their ancestors.
The part Columbia River in which Will Thomas had discovered the skull belonged to the Army Corps of Engineers. In September 1996, two months after the discovery of Kennewick Man, the Corps decided that the bones should be returned to the Umatilla for reburial at an unknown location. Almost immediately eight anthropologists, who included the most distinguished scientists in their fields, filed a lawsuit to halt the Corps’ actions, pleading that scientists should have a chance to study the bones. Kennewick Man, they pointed out, could provide invaluable scientific data that could transform our understanding of early American history. NAGPRA, they insisted, was not meant to protect 9000-year old skeletons. They accused the Army Corps of arbitrary decision-making and undermining the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, and safeguards the right to gather and receive information. If the skeleton was reburied, not just scientists, but the American public, would be deprived of potentially irreplaceable information about its won past. The anthropologists claimed that their constitutional rights had been violated in another way too – they were being refused access to the bones solely because were not of the same ethnicity as the Indians.
Native American leaders in turn dismissed the anthropologists’ demand to examine Kennewick Man scientifically. ‘It’s like looking at us like a bunch of rats and mice’, retorted Jerry Meninick, vice chairman of the tribal council of the Yakama Indian Nation. ‘We feel offended to be classed in such a situation.’ Another Indian spokesman, Marla Big Boy, Oglala Lakota Attorney General for the Colville Confederated Tribes of eastern Washington, suggested that the Kennewick Man case was simply the latest expression of scientific racism.
So began the extraordinary battle over Kennewick Man. In 1997 the court ordered the Department of the Interior to establish whether Kennewick Man was indeed physically and culturally affiliated to modern day Indians – but without using any kind of invasive technique, such as DNA testing. The first report – compiled by the anthropologists Joseph Powell and Jerome Rose – compared bone and cranial measurements of Kennewick Man with those of other populations. ‘The Kennewick individual is unique relative to recent American Indians’, the report concluded, ‘and find its closest association with groups of Polynesia and the Ainu of Japan… not with American Indians or with Europeans.’
The Department of the Interior then set out to establish a ‘shared cultural identity’ between Kennewick Man and modern Native Americans. This second report found no definitive archaeological, historical, ethnographic or linguistic evidence to suggest such a shared identity. Nevertheless, in September 2000 the Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt declared just such a cultural affiliation based on the oral history of Native Americans. Native American stories tell of a people who have been in the area for many thousands of years. Babbitt admitted that ‘ambiguities in the data made this a close call.’ But, he said, ‘I was persuaded by the geographic data and oral histories of the five tribes that collectively assert they are the descendants of people who have been in the region of the Upper Columbia Plateau for a very long time.’
In August 2002, however, Judge John Jelderks overturned Babbitt’s decision and ordered the US government to let scientists study Kennewick Man. Almost immediately both the five Indian tribes and the US government lodged an appeal. Eighteen months later, in February 2004, the appeals court decided in favour of the scientists. It still took over a year for the government to accept the scientists’ protocols for studying the skeleton. Finally on 6 July 2005, almost nine years to the day since Will Thomas found the skull, a team of researchers gathered at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle for a 10-day initial ‘measurement and observation trip’.
Over the years, what had begun as a local dispute as to who should have legal possession of a 9000-year pile of bones has become something much larger. The debate about Kennewick Man gets to the heart of many of the issues that run through this book: what is race? How do we define cultural identity? Who owns knowledge? Who defines history? What is the role of science in contemporary society?
For many scientists, the idea that the bones belong to any one group is abhorrent. ‘I explicitly assume that no living culture, religion, interest groups or biological population has any moral or legal right to the exclusive use or regulation of ancient human skeletons since all humans are members of a single species’, argues Douglas Ubelaker, a bioarchaeologist from the Smithsonian Institute. ‘Ancient skeletons are the remnants of unduplicable evolutionary events which all living and future peoples have the right to know about and understand. In other words, ancient human skeletons belong to everyone.’ And while facts by themselves cannot tell a story, nevertheless any story about human origins that aspires to be more than myth must be anchored by the facts. ‘Native American beliefs about the past and the dead certainly deserve respect, but they should not be allowed to dictate government policy on the investigation and interpretation of early American prehistory’, write Robson Bonnichsen, one of the plaintiffs in the Kennewick Man court case, and Alan L. Schneider, the lawyer who defended the scientists. ‘If a choice must be made among competing theories of human origins, primacy should be given to theories based on the scientific method. Only scientific theories are built on empirical evidence; only scientific theories can be adjusted or overturned.’
For many Native Americans and their academic supporters, on the other hand, the myths by which they live reveal why Kennewick Man belongs to them. ‘If this individual is truly over 9,000 years old, that only substantiates our belief that he is Native American’, claims Armand Minthorn of the Umatilla tribe. ‘From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.’ History is something given, not something to be studied. ‘Some scientists say that if this individual is not studied further, we, as Indians, will be destroying evidence of our own history’, Minthorn writes. ‘We already know our history. It is passed on to us through our elders and through our religious practices.’ As for science, many Native Americans treat it with great suspicion. ‘History proves that archaeology has a political context, which cane be used to help or harm Native American interests’, argues Rebecca Tsosie, director of the Indian Legal Program at Arizona State University, ‘The discipline of science, like history, is not neutral.’ Many archaeologists agree. ‘It is simply untrue’, David Hurst Thomas suggests, to assume that anthropologists provide ‘an objective telling of events… Like it or not, the historical disciplines are the products of Western tradition, and even anthropologists, protest as they might, are the prisoners of their own cultural backgrounds.’ Indeed, for Deb Huglin, a Californian archaeologist who works with tribes to protect and obtain remains, archaeologists are ‘making up stories’ to support ‘propaganda’; Huglin talks of archaeology as employing ‘displacement genocide tactics’.
This debate between scientists and Native American activists has in recent years taken place within the legal framework of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA was the product of many years of lobbying both by Native American activists, anthropologists and archaeologists and was intended to be an act of restitution for the wrongs done to American Indians by scientists over the years. Throughout the nineteenth century, and for much of the twentieth, anthropologists viewed American Indians, as they did most non-Western peoples, as objects to collect and rank, rather than people with beliefs, cultures and histories to understand.
As recompense for this history, the law requires federally-funded institutions to return human remains and objects found in Indian graves to their original owners. Who are the original owners? According to NAGPRA, they are lineal descendants of the disinterred person or federally recognized tribes that are ‘cultural affiliated’ to the group from which the ancestor came or which produced the artifact. NAGPRA defines ‘cultural affiliation’ as ‘a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian and an identifiable earlier group’. NAGPRA mandated museums to provide culturally affiliated tribes with a list of all Indian human remains they held, as well as ceremonial and sacred objects, and to offer to return such remains or objects back to the tribes. Any new remains or objects discovered on tribal lands could not be examined without the consent of culturally affiliated tribes, who could demand their return.
NAGPRA, the anthropologist David Hurst Thomas suggests, redresses past wrongs by shifting the balance between science and Native American beliefs to ensure that ‘no longer is the scientific position privileged’. Fellow anthropologist Geoffrey Clark, on the other hand, abhors the way in which ‘NAGPRA puts ethnicity and religious belief on an equal footing with science, and thus provides a mandate for claims of affiliation by virtually any interested party’. As a result of NAGPRA Robson Bonnichsen and Alan Schneider point out, ‘Native American origin theories, which had long been relegated to the realm of personal religious beliefs, are suddenly being thrust into the domain of public policy.’
In the first decade after the law entered the statute book, over half a million sets of remains and artefacts were either returned or were in the process of being returned. Such destruction of material damages our ability to understand our past. As the biological anthropologist Robert Foley has put it, ‘Destroy that record and we destroy large chunks of history, just as we would if we were to destroy libraries and books written in the past.’ Human remains do more than simply tell us about the past. They can also aid medical research and help refine the forensic sciences. In 1999 Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology repatriated the remains of more than two thousand individuals to the Pecos and Jemez Pueblo tribes in New Mexico. The collection was of rare value because it was well-preserved, large enough to be statistically significant, and demographically representative of a single population. Over the years, the bones had been examined by dozens of researchers studying everything from head injuries to the development of tooth cavities. Anthropologist Christopher Ruff used the collection to publish a landmark paper on osteoporosis. According to Ruff, the collection was ‘an incredibly valuable resource’, the data from which he will still be using ‘for the next 30 years’. The bones, Ruff explains, provided ‘a kind of preindustrial baseline to compare to modern populations, which may suffer ailments that weren’t so prevalent before the industrial era.’ It is a resource that will now be denied to future researchers.
Tristram Besterman, director of the Manchester Museum in England which has returned many skeletons in its collection, acknowledges that repatriation ‘may well entail a loss to science’ but believes it is a price worth paying because it also helps ‘heal open festering wounds.’ The archaeologists Jane Hubert and Cressida Fforde are similarly in ‘no doubt of the immense spiritual and material significance’ of human remains to indigenous groups. Yet, before NAGPRA there had been little demand from Native Americans for the repatriation of either artefacts or remains. The issue of repatriation became a major issue in the 1980s, not just in the USA but internationally. But while Native American activists, anthropologists, archaeologists and museum curators all became involved in the debate, the issue barely registered among non-professionals. Anthropologist Russell Thornton of Washington’s Smithsonian Institute observes that when the museum first contacted tribes about repatriation in the 1980s few responded. Jim Chatters has written that in his experience (and his experience spans four decades) ‘the tribes had been little interested in very ancient remains’. After NAGPRA, however, ‘activists among the local tribes had begun to claim all precolonial human remains as ancestors’.
The anthropologist David Thomas Hurst tells the story of the attempt by the American Museum of Natural History in New York to repatriate the skeletons it possessed of four Inuits. In the late 1980s, Canadian journalist Kenn Harper launched a campaign for the repatriation of the skeletons with his book Give Me My Father’s Body. The Museum of Natural History accepted that it was time to return the bones. It sent representatives to Qaanaaq, the Greenland village in which the descendants of the New York Inuits now live, to see how those descendants wished the bones to be repatriated. No one in the village seemed interested in the issue. After almost a year, the pastor of Qaanaaq’s Lutheran Church agreed, after considerable pressure from his superiors, to accept the bones and conduct the reinternment ceremony. When the anthropologist Edward Carpenter, one of the Museum of Natural History’s representatives, asked locals what they felt about the ceremony, one resident said simply ‘embarassment’. ‘The whole service was really for us’, Carpenter later observed, adding that Inuit only participated in the ceremony as a courtesy to their guests.
As the surreal story of the Qaanaag Inuit reveals, the repatriation movement was driven, at least initially, not by popular pressure, but by the campaigning work of activists, archaeologists, anthropologists and museum curators. For activists, making a claim on ancestors and on ancestral heritage has provided a means of affirming a cultural identity, allowing them to ‘lay claim to their own pasts, and reassert their culture and community identity’. The process, Jane Hubert and Cressida Fforde suggest, ‘can change the cultural identity of a group and the way that members of the group see themselves’, creating ‘commonalities… that did not exist in pre-colonial times but has become relevant and necessary in the face of the legacy of colonialism’. Not just in the USA, but throughout the world the repatriation debate has become the vehicle for identity formation. In Australia, for example, one advocate of repatriation suggests that it has helped fuel the ‘Aboriginal “cultural revival” that has occurred throughout Australia since the 1970s’. It helps ‘not only [to] articulate, strengthen and construct local Aboriginal identity but also Aboriginality as a pan-Australian commonality’ because it clearly differentiates between those who are Aboriginal and those who are not’.
The activists demanding repatriation are not those living ‘traditional’ lives, but mainly middle class urbanites searching for a cultural authenticity that they believe they have lost. The source of Native American activism, one of its leaders Vine Deloria Jr has written, is ‘urban Indians seeking an Indian identity and heritage’ who became ‘the most militant of advocates for cultural renewal’. Hence what fed the repatriation movement, the sociologist Joseph Tilden Rhea observes, were ‘the identity needs of a generation of urban Indians who felt alienated from American culture and who turned to their Indian heritage for a better alternative. Reaching for a new sense of the past, they developed an active antagonism towards the mainstream representation of their history. Acutely aware of the connection between identity, history and political power, urban Indians became increasingly active in the reshaping of American collective memory.’
Cressida Fforde suggests that a similar process has taken place in Australia. ‘Many of the Aborigines who have been the most visible in the requesting and receiving of ancestral remains from institutions in the 1980s and 1990s’, Fforde points out, ‘have been those who are perceived as “non-traditional” or “urban” people’. For such activists, ‘The identification of collected remains as ancestors confirms the descent of modern “urban” communities from individuals from the traditional past, thus confirming their Aboriginal identity by virtue of descent.’ Cultural authenticity is won, in other words, through biological descent. Urban Aboriginals do not live traditional lives but are culturally similar to other urban Australians. But their ‘real’ culture remains Aboriginal by virtue of their ancestry. Culture is not what you do but what you should be doing. Whatever urban Aboriginals may be doing in the here and now, the essence of the culture remains intact over tens of thousands of years, a fixed, unchanging entity that inhabits the individual and shapes his. Culture as volksgeist, in other words, or culture as race.
The argument for the repatriation of human remains and cultural objects remains troubling because its entanglement with identity politics resurrects racial ways of thinking about human groups. At the heart of the demand for repatriation is the idea of cultural continuity over hundreds, even thousands, of years, the belief that a contemporary group has a direct connection to 10,000 year-old bones or artefacts found in the same geographical location. It is a notion that most archaeologists and anthropologists dismiss as absurd. ‘As a specialist in the prehistory of western North America’, archaeologist Michael Moratto observes, ‘I can assure you that no living society, native American or other, can credibly claim biologic or cultural affiliation with archaeological remains 93 centuries old. This time span represents nearly 500 generations. During this time, peoples entered the New World, moved extensively within it, evolved culturally, intermarried and sometimes died out.’ There is therefore no ‘substantive or legal merit ‘ in culturally linking Kennewick Man with any group of modern Indians.
Others, however, view culture in a very different fashion. In April 1998 the Army Corps of Engineers covered the riverbank site where Kennewick Man had been discovered in 600 tons of rocks. Most scientists viewed this as an act of vandalism that destroyed any possibility of further research on the site. To this day the Corps has never satisfactorily explained its action. When it first proposed the cover-up, scientists vigorously objected and Congress even passed a law demanding that the site be left intact. Nevertheless, days before the law came into effect, the Corps went ahead, some believe on the direct orders of the White House. But if scientists were devastated, many activists were elated. ‘This is preservation of our culture’, claimed Umatilla Indian leader Armand Minthorn as he watched Army helicopters drop their load on the riverbank.
Minthorn may well have been talking metaphorically, but his response provides a good expression of the view of culture as something as rigid as a rock-filled tomb. From the viewpoint of a repatriationist, culture is like a sealed box that holds a people both in the present and across time, and any attempt to open that sealed box is an unacceptable threat. ‘We are discovering the “new human rights”, which include, first and foremost, cultural rights’, UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali told the UN General Assembly at the launch of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in 1992. ‘We might even say that there can be no human rights unless cultural authenticity is preserved.’ There it is, the A-word again. Repatriation is one means of preserving cultural authenticity. It is, Jane Hubert and Cressida Fforde write, ‘a process towards the recreation of the wholeness of the people receiving the remains of their ancestors’. The wholeness of the people. It’s a phrase that calls to mind not just Herder’s concept of the volksgeist but the imperatives of racial science too and the idea of racial type.
Yet volkish notions of culture are coming into vogue. A United Nations report on the protection of cultural and intellectual property argues that ‘each indigenous community must retain permanent control over all elements of its own heritage’, heritage being defined as ‘all of those things which international law regards as the creative production of human thought and craftsmanship, such as songs, stories, scientific knowledge and artworks.’ UNESCO has envisioned the creation of state folklore protection boards that would ‘register works and authorize their use’. Such protection boards might intervene if other peoples produce imitations or if native art was used in ‘culturally inappropriate contexts’. In 2003 UNESCO adopted the International Convention of the Intangible Cultural Heritage that requires governments to prepare an inventory of intangible culture and thence to protect it. What particularly worries UNESCO is the inability of states in a globalised world to control the cross-border flow of ideas, images and resources that affect cultural development.’ By ‘highlighting the culture of economically powerful nations’, UNESCO argues, globalisation ‘has created new forms of inequality’ and helped foster ‘cultural conflict rather than cultural pluralism’. UNESCO’s long-term aim, anthropologist Michael Brown suggests, is to help nations ‘restrict the exportation of local knowledge and the importation of cultural items (such as music and film) perceived to pose a threat to national values and tradition.’
The demand for cultural protection appears to be a progressive move to protect the rights of indigenous and other marginalized groups. In fact it is deeply reactionary. It is creating a form of intellectual apartheid in which biology becomes the gatekeeper to knowledge. Access to knowledge is distributed according to one’s biological ancestry. Cultural repatriation only makes sense if we accept the notion of cultural ownership and cultural ownership only makes sense if we accept a link between blood and culture. In other words, if we accept a racial view of the world.
Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008)
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