I came across this classroom assignment I wrote in 2006 for an International Mediation course I was taking at Brandeis University. The first third of the paper is a tidy re-cap of the traumatic battle surrounding the discovery of a 9,300 year old human skeleton beside the Columbia River. The remainder is obviously student-speak designed to answer the many questions put to us by our professor, and designed to prove that we had read all the texts assigned.
Pursuing any current and relevant news, I found an article in the Tri-City Herald noting that ancient human remains were again found in the area. Startled, I read on to discover that the bones, estimated to be 300 to 350 years old, were handed over to the Tribes claiming them by the US Army Corps of Engineers. No fuss, no scandal, no lawsuits.
Painful as it is, the truth looks ugly. Scientists, arguably among the most intelligent of us, appear to be using only their empirical data in these two cases. Inciting war in the first, and granting peace in the second. They apparently have decided that Indians have the right to claim 300 year old remains but not 9000 year old remains. Yes, I see the difference on the surface. But ideologically, what is the difference? Why does one group get to draw the line, and where exactly is it drawn, and why?
My apologies if I lost you, because this stuff is so central to my core that I find it hard to express to someone else. But let me try: Indians claim that ancient human remains in North America are their ancestors because their oral traditions (i.e. their religions) tell them so. Scientists track ancestry through DNA samples, and many believe that there are multiple lineages that populated North America. Thus, any kinship ties could only be proven through meticulous scientific study.
The fact that no ownership war began over the 300 year old remains says to me that scientists are willing to agree on kinship ties in that case. But NOT because they respect Indian religious traditions, but because it happens to be in line with their own assumptions. This stuff makes me furious. 1) If your scientific point is that DNA is required, then why not battle with equal ferocity over the 300 year old remains? 2) Why do the scientists get to set the terms? 3) If 9000 years old is clearly not an ancestor, and 300 years is clearly an ancestor, can we please have the exact year that delineates? (ok, yes, that was sarcasm)
Multiple parties were (and are still) passionate about those particular human remains called both Ancient One and Kennewick Man. Opinions vary on how they should or should not be handled, stored, examined, discussed, or buried. Millions of dollars and millions of hours were spent to make a decision on whether American Indians who claimed ancestral ties had the right to dispose of the human remains as the Tribes saw fit; or, whether anthropologists should be allowed to study the remains for the benefit of adding to our human knowledge base of early versions of our species.
My take was that, had the situation been handled properly, there may have been a way to satisfy some of the needs of both of these parties (as well as the needs of other parties also involved, to include the US Army Corps of Engineers and the intriguing Asatru Folk Assembly).
Again I fear that this is evidence that minority parties rarely get respect or validation. It is depressing and heartbreaking, not to mention frustrating when groups of stereotypically “intelligent” people such as scientists are the ones furthering ignorance, discrimination, and destructive hegemony.
On the optimistic side… there is a chance that I just witnessed an evolution of another kind. Can it be that we have learned lessons over here in the Pacific Northwest, and applied them successfully?