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Perspective: NAGPRA impacts art and science

"In April 1998, the Army Corps of Engineers dumped 600 tons of boulders and dirt over an area near the Columbia River in Washington where, two years earlier, the oldest known skeleton in North America � dubbed Kennewick Man � had been found.

If there were other 9,200-year-old bones under the rubble, if there were any other artifacts that might have given clues about events in North America millenniums before written history could provide an account, now they would be safely interred.

That was just what five Indian tribes in the area preferred. Though the skeleton was found on federal land, the tribes claimed it as ancestral, rejecting assertions that it had no connection to them and refusing to allow scientists to conduct an examination. They insisted the bones be turned over for immediate burial, invoking the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The United States government agreed with alacrity.

In such circumstances, why stir up more trouble? Better to bury the entire site. The Corps of Engineers said that it was engaged in an act of conservation; it wanted to protect the site from erosion. Its rush, the corps said, had nothing to do with the fact that Congressional bills forbidding it from disturbing the archaeologically important area had just been passed but had not become law yet. It hurried, it said, because salmon protection regulations would have prevented shoreline work after April 15. The dirt-dumping was also supported by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal agency that describes itself as seeking to preserve "our nation's historic resources."

A strange sort of protection and conservation indeed! Don't reveal the past, bury it; don't seek information, protect yourself from it; don't add complications, welcome simplification. But stranger still is that these actions were not really out of character with the impact of the protection act.

Already, hundreds of less-renowned prehistoric skeletons have been turned over by museums for Indian burial. The lawsuit over Kennewick Man gave hope that perhaps the standard of proof for repatriation would be raised. But there has also been an attempt to establish through fiat what has not been established by fact: last year, Senator John McCain of Arizona, on behalf of several tribes, proposed an amendment to the protection act; it would ensure that ancient remains would automatically qualify as Indian remains, without requiring ancestral proof."

Get the Story:
Edward Rothstein: Protection for Indian Patrimony That Leads to a Paradox (The New York Times 3/29)

NAGPRA Amendment Bill:
S.536: Technical Corrections Act

Court Decision:
BONNICHSEN v. US (February 4, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Kennewick Man, Department of Interior -
Friends of America's Past -
Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Center, The Tri-City (Washington) Herald -

Related Stories:
Time Magazine: Who Were The First Americans? (03/15)
Repatriation a major issue for tribes, museums (03/09)
Opinion: Common ground in Kennewick Man study (3/6)
Science Snapshot: Study of Kennewick Man (2/28)
Scientists continue study of Kennewick Man remains (2/24)
Kennewick Man's teeth may tell true age of remains (02/02)
Bush administration opposes NAGPRA amendment (07/29)
Listening Lounge: Senate hearing on repatriation (07/28)
Editorial: Science trumps Native repatriation (7/27)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearings (7/25)
Editorial: McCain should drop NAGPRA amendment (7/20)
Scientists wrap up work on Kennewick Man remains (7/19)
Kennewick Man scientists fear NAGPRA amendment (7/15)
Scientists begin study of Kennewick Man remains (7/11)
NAGPRA amendment up for hearing in Senate (07/06)
Column: Hearing slated on two-word change to NAGPRA (06/24)
Scientists get ready to study Kennewick Man (6/21)
Tribe says NAGPRA amendment will right a wrong (04/19)
Opinion: McCain bill will block study of ancient remains (04/14)
Scientists oppose McCain bill to change NAGPRA (04/08)
Panel approves Native Hawaiian, NAGPRA changes (03/10)
NAGPRA change up for Senate consideration again (3/9)
Tribes seek role in Kennewick Man proceedings (02/16)
Campbell-backed bill adds two words to NAGPRA (10/1)
Battle over Kennewick Man study far from over (08/02)
Editorial: Let Kennewick Man speak! (say what?) (07/22)
Column: Kennewick Man belongs to everyone (7/21)
Tribes to seek restrictions on Kennewick Man study (7/20)
Tribes drop Kennewick Man claim in court (7/20)
Repatriation process criticized at Senate hearing (07/15)
Editorial: It's about time Kennewick Man case ends (04/29)
Tribes debate next step in Kennewick Man case (04/27)
Kennewick rehearing denied (4/21)
Court rules scientists can study Kennewick Man (02/05)
Kennewick Man battle back in court (9/8)
Tribes file opening brief in Kennewick Man case (03/19)
Appeals court asked to stop Kennewick Man tests (01/23)
Norton treads uncharted waters over remains (4/11)