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Science, Religion, and Politics

Kennewick Man, Part 7

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Kennewick Man Table of Contents | Part 6: How NAGPRA Affects Kennewick Man | Part 7: Science, Religion, and Politics | Part 8: The Jelderks Decision

What at the time seemed like the last few acts of the Kennewick Man controversy were played out third week of September, 2000. In a letter dated September 21st, 2000, then-US Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt wrote:

"After considering and weighing the totality of the circumstances and evidence, DOI [the United States Department of the Interior] has determined that the evidence of cultural continuity is sufficient to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the Kennewick remains are culturally affiliated with the present-day Indian tribe claimants."

Babbitt further found that the Indian tribe claimants (including the the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation of the Yakama Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, and the Wanapum Band) were now the legal custodians of the skeletal material and further scientific research by members of the public was to be up to them.

Adequate Evidence of Affiliation?

That's interesting, because the DOI's point of view was that there was adequate evidence (in the form of oral history, linguistics, geography, and some archaeology) to be able to affiliate the 9000-year-old Kennewick Man remains to the five tribes without further testing. But, in September of that same year Babbitt found that the Spirit Cave mummy, roughly the same age as Kennewick, could not be affiliated with any modern tribe. None of the labs provided samples for DNA testing from Kennewick man could obtain adequately intact material from the bone collagen to run tests, although one lab, the U.C. Davis Molecular Anthropology Laboratory, reported that "it is possible that methods developed in the near future could be successful in extracting suitable DNA for analysis from the Kennewick remains."

But that didn't happen. The eight scholars who filed suit to obtain access to the skeletal material renewed their suit against what was unquestionably a severe setback. It is important to recognize that not every American Indian believes the Kennewick Man should be reburied without further analysis; and that not every archaeologist believes that it shouldn't be.

Science v Religion

This is but one battle in the war between science and religion; or maybe between Native American rights and the First Amendment rights of the scientific community. But make no mistake about it, the stakes were very high on both sides.

Kennewick Man Table of Contents | Part 6: How NAGPRA Affects Kennewick Man | Part 7: Science, Religion, and Politics | Part 8: The Jelderks Decision
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