Owning the past

What’s ours in mine

Researching news coverage of science and American Indians I’m struck by the divisions created in reporting conflicts. In truth, it’s not just the journalist’s fault; scientists see themselves as a separate breed and Indians are divided by culture and geography. As I’ve noted earlier, the Kennewick Man case placed scientists and Indians into camps of “us and them.”

A closer look at the language used in reporting the conflict illuminates the chasm between ways-of-knowing, and history helped shape Indigenous attitudes about their outsider status. Government officials really did hope that Indians would assimilate, and thus created legislation to place Indian lands in the hands of the Natives, which they could then sell, bit by bit. Today half of American Indians live off the reservation but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are removed from their cultures. Cities like Portland have Native centers, pow wows and other activities that bring Indians together.

In the court battles over Kennewick Man, a Umatilla leader distinguished his history from the scientists: “We know what happened 10,000 years ago. I know what happened 10,000 years ago at home along the Columbia River, because my teachings from my older people tell me how life was 10,000 years ago. And the scientists cannot accept the fact that just because it’s not written down in a book, it’s not fact. It’s fact to me, because I live it every day.”

The Umatilla refer to the skeleton as The Ancient One and consider him an ancestor. Armand Minthorn notes on the tribal website: “The people of my tribe, and four other affected tribes, strongly believe that the individual must be reburied as soon as possible. My tribe has ties to this individual because he was uncovered in our traditional homeland–a homeland where we still retain fishing, hunting, gathering, and other rights under our 1855 Treaty with the US Government.”

However, the scientists also claimed the skeleton as a forebear. I noted that the separations between Indian and settler heritage became muddy—Kennewick Man is framed as “our ancestor.” When 60 Minutes interviewed Smithsonian anthropologist Doug Owsley, history became “our history.” He offered this perspective: “If we have skeletons that are that ancient that come out of the ground and there’s no opportunity for us to look at them, no opportunity to learn, then we will never have questions–we’ll never answer these questions of the past.

Reporter: We’re talking about our history?

Owsley: We’re talking about American history, yes.

The reporter reframed the Indian perspective as “trying to control history.” The reporter asked another anthropologist:

Reporter: Do you think that this is an attempt, on the Indians’ part, to control history?

Chatters: Yes. In a word, I do. They’ve got a history now, the way it’s–it’s laid out, that fits their present-day political needs quite effectively. If that history changes it may not fit so well.

So, while Kennewick Man is seen by the local tribes as their ancestor, the scientists claim him to be theirs, which gets framed as “ours” but not yours, if you happen to be Indian. So “ours” should be placed in quotes because, clearly, not everyone is included. And once again Indians are cast as outsiders.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in authenticity, framing, human origin, Indian, journalism, Native Science, news bias, repatriation, science. Bookmark the permalink.

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