Defining Race

imageThe conversation turned to race.

My talk Wednesday at the Newberry focussed on Native and scientific perspectives, particularly over Kennewick Man–the 9300-year-old skeleton discovered in the Columbia River.

During the question and answer session one guest asked if Kennewick Man fuels the conversation over race.

When we teach classes about race we argue that race is socially constructed. Humans are the same race regardless of skin color and gene type. We sweep race under the rug.

Many have tried to quantify race, typically with disastrous effects. Nineteenth Century scientist Samuel Morton collected skulls and measured intelligence by the shape of the skull.

No surprise that the skulls labelled Caucasian were seen as holding more worthy brains than the American Indian or African skulls.

But the Kennewick Man case brings up race because Indian tribes were required to prove affiliation with the 9300-year-old skeleton in order to have the remains repatriated.

At a time when we talk about race as socially constructed, the Kennewick Man legal landscape brings up the biopolitical realm of race, because one anthropologist declared the skull as non-Indian.

Scientists studying the bones said Kennewick Man isn’t like modern American Indians–not too surprising a statement since skull morphology changes over 10,000 years.

Because the ancient skull has been determined as different invites a discussion about race because of claims Kennewick Man is something other than native to North America.

Journalists then report Kennewick Man can’t be Native American, despite the fact that the bones were buried in North America, thus raising the spectre of race.

Question is: who determines what it means to be Native American?

Image from


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, ethics, framing, human origin, Indian, journalism, Kennewick Man, native american, Native Science, news bias, repatriation, science, science communication, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Defining Race

  1. Ashana M says:

    Race is constructed, but our constructions are real–biology isn’t everything. The order we give to the world in how we think about it counts for something to.


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