Politics & Policy

Before Columbus …

Last week, Hillary Clinton condemned the Bush administration’s “open season on open inquiry” and promised to end its “war on science.” She might have chosen a better target, closer to home: the Senate, where the Indian Affairs Committee has just approved a two-word change to federal law that could render the scientific study of pre-Columbian history in the United States virtually impossible.

One of the first casualties of the revision would be Kennewick Man — the popular name for a set of 9,300-year-old bones found along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996. Human remains of that age are extremely rare in North America. Each discovery has much to teach about the ancient settlement of the western hemisphere. Kennewick Man holds special interest because the bones are well preserved and aren’t obviously related to modern-day tribal populations. The first physical anthropologist to examine them initially thought they belonged to a 19th-century pioneer of European extraction. Then the carbon-dating results came back with their amazing conclusion.

Today, Kennewick Man is a profound mystery. He certainly belongs to an early wave of migrants. Scientists still aren’t sure precisely where these people came from or how they got here. They’ve been linked to various Asian groups, including the indigenous Ainu population of Japan, and the traditional explanation of a crossing on a Bering Strait land bridge is giving way to other ideas. One hypothesis is that the ancestors of today’s Indians, who are most closely related to people in northeastern Asia, arrived at a later point in time and replaced those who came before them.

The only way to solve the riddle of how the New World came to have such people is to allow the scientific study of old bones. The public has taken a keen interest in the question: A few years ago, Time even put Kennewick Man on its cover.

Yet under the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) — a well-meaning law passed in 1990 — tribes can lay claim to cultural objects and human remains locked away in federally funded museums or unearthed on federal land. In order to do so, they must prove a reasonable connection between themselves and the objects they wish to obtain.

When Kennewick Man came to light, a coalition of tribes in the Pacific Northwest demanded the remains under the provisions of NAGPRA. They said they wished to bury the bones, making further study impossible. The Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over Kennewick Man, took steps to comply. But then a group of prominent scientists sued. In 2004, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the scientists, pointing out that the modern tribes had failed to demonstrate an adequate link between themselves and the skeleton of a person who died more than nine millennia ago.

So the tribes turned to Congress. Two years ago, Sen. John McCain proposed altering NAGPRA’s definition of “Native American” from “of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States.” The new language would add two words: “…is, or was, indigenous…” McCain’s efforts failed, in part because of public objections. But now the change has slipped through in a bill of “technical corrections” that the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee has just approved.

This is no technical correction. It’s a major change in federal law that would lead to an impoverished understanding of American prehistory — an “open season on open inquiry” that neither Senator Clinton nor anybody who wants to understand the human past should accept.

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