Archaeology, Native American History

Protecting Native American Cultural Resources: Part I – The Case of Kennewick Man

United States archaeology isn’t short of controversy and most of it stems from the continued tension between Native American tribes and the US government over who owns the past. Back in April, the 20 year legal battle over the remains of a 9,000-year-old Paleoamerican came to an end. You may recognize his name. Kennewick Man.


Full skeletal remains of Kennewick Man

Kennewick Man was discovered in Kennewick, Washington in 1996 and was deemed one of the most monumental American archaeological finds. Archaeologists and scientists were excited, and rightly so, because of how old his remains were. The completely intact remains of this Paleoamerican would provide new insight and information about the earliest inhabitants of the North American continent and possible migration patterns. However, the first scientists to study Kennewick Man claimed there was a “lack of Native American characteristics” and they believed he was not an ancestor of Native Americans. Five different Native American tribes in the Kennewick, Washington area had to fight for 20 years for scientists and the government to finally recognize that Kennewick Man was an ancestral Native American.

You may be wondering why exactly it was so important for Kennewick Man to be recognized as Native American. In 1990 a federal law was passed called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The law describes:

“the rights of Native American lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations with respect to the treatment, repatriation, and disposition of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony, referred to collectively in the statute as cultural items, with which they can show a relationship of lineal descent or cultural affiliation. One major purpose of this statute (Sections 5-7) is to require that Federal agencies and museums receiving Federal funds inventory holdings of Native American human remains and funerary objects and provide written summaries of other cultural items. The agencies and museums must consult with Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to attempt to reach agreements on the repatriation or other disposition of these remains and objects. Once lineal descent or cultural affiliation has been established, and in some cases the right of possession also has been demonstrated, lineal descendants, affiliated Indian Tribes, or affiliated Native Hawaiian organizations normally make the final determination about the disposition of cultural items. Disposition may take many forms from reburial to long term curation, according to the wishes of the lineal descendent(s) or culturally affiliated Tribe(s).”

In addition one of the major tenants of the law is to:

“provide greater protection for Native American burial sites and more careful control over the removal of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and items of cultural patrimony on Federal and tribal lands. NAGPRA requires that Indian tribes or Native Hawaiian organizations be consulted whenever archeological investigations encounter, or are expected to encounter, Native American cultural items or when such items are unexpectedly discovered on Federal or tribal lands (Section 3). Excavation or removal of any such items also must be done under procedures required by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (Sec. 3 (c)(1)). This NAGPRA requirement is likely to encourage the in situ preservation of archaeological sites, or at least the portions of them that contain burials or other kinds of cultural items. In many situations, it will be advantageous for Federal agencies and Tribes undertaking land-modifying activities on their lands to undertake careful consultations with traditional users of the land and intensive archeological surveys to locate and then protect unmarked Native American graves, cemeteries, or other places where cultural items might be located.”

Source: US National Park Service


Kennewick Man skull and facial reconstruction.

If Kennewick Man isn’t Native American then NAGPRA doesn’t apply. The problem here is that scientists speculated Kennewick Man’s heritage based on his skeletal structure, particularly his cranial structure. This harkens back to the early years of anthropology where race inferiority was determined by looking at the size, shape, and characteristics of a human skull. This has become known as scientific racism and many of the greatest minds in anthropology held some of these views. Scientific racism was used to justify everything from slavery to the Holocaust. It was a way to try to put science into providing evidence of a superior race. It was used to dehumanize other Caucasian groups like the Jews and the Irish. Cranial size, shape, and characteristics was a way to somehow prove that if a black person had a smaller skull than a white person, that made them less smart and incapable of being “civilized” therefore it was okay to make them slaves. These practices were applied to Native Americans as well. The difference between savage and civil was the skull.

human_skull_anatomyYes, with proper training and education a person can pick out certain characteristics within the cranial structure that are unique to a specific group of people living in a specific region. This however has nothing to do with race. The cranium is a complex part of the human skeletal system. A skull is comprised of several bones each with their own name and function. The size and shape of these bones are what make one skull look different from another.

Just by looking at a skull you are not going to know whether the person was white, black, Asian, Hispanic, or Native American. It is arbitrary.  Can you guess what race these folks were? You probably can’t. Each skull is unique and certain features will be present in people from specific regions. These are based on environmental factors, disease, genetics, and good ole evolution.


Seven skulls from seven different countries.

The lack of Native American characteristics in Kennewick Man’s skeleton does not mean he is not Native American. While certain features can be identified as unique to a certain group of people, that does not mean that all of the people in that group will have that characteristic. What is not arbitrary when studying human skulls is age and gender. Men and women have very distinct skeletal features that help archaeologists and other scientists determine whether skeletal remains are male or female. You can also get an estimate on an age. This can be determined by whether or not all of the cranial plates have fused and the teeth. A child’s maxilla (upper) and mandible (jaw) will show adult teeth still within the tooth cavity in the jaw bone (I’ve seen it and it’s actually really cool).

Child's skull, age approximately 16 months.

Child’s skull, age approximately 16 months.

I have no doubt that the scientists involved with the Kennewick Man project knew their stuff, but it took some serious in depth analysis and studying by forensic anthropologists, bioarchaeologists, and scientists who study bones (especially human bones) for a living to make sure that they were correctly identifying Kennewick Man’s genetic ancestry. Dealing with the dead is a very sensitive cultural issue that archaeologists run into all the time. Every culture has their own belief system about the dead and many see the removal of remains from its burial location as taboo. Every Native American tribe in the United States is different in this respect. Some tribes are very sensitive about their dead and don’t want remains touched at all, regardless of how old they are or what kind of data can be gathered from them. There are other tribes that are okay with allowing archaeologists to remove remains, but will usually always want them back to be repatriated to a new location where they won’t be disturbed.

Once it was proven that the five tribes who were fighting to reclaim Kennewick Man’s remains were determined to have a cultural affiliation to him, the remains were released to their custody. They were able to repatriate Kennewick Man’s remains, and the tribes held traditional ceremonies to ensure that he would rest in peace.


3D computer renders of Kennewick Man made him look a lot like Patrick Stewart.


Reconstruction modeling based on perceived cranial features made Kennewick Man look more European than Native American.

In my most recent fieldwork that was conducted over the last four months we came across burial sites on tribal land. These are very sensitive areas and should be respected. Every tribe has their own beliefs and procedures for addressing burial sites. The important thing to remember is that laws exist to help them protect their ancestors. However, government and private agencies are not beyond skirting around these laws to accomplish their goals. This piece is part of three part article I am writing about how US archaeology impacts Native Americans, and how they often get pushed aside even when there are laws designed to protect them.

Part two will be addressing the North Dakota Pipeline that is threatening to destroy sacred Lakota sites and burial grounds.


Comments are closed.