Kennewick Man’s back in the news

But it’s the same old story

Image by © Marty Two Bulls, from Indian Country Today

Image by © Marty Two Bulls, from Indian Country Today

A science writer called me with a head’s up.

The Journal Nature was ready to release news that scientists would soon announce the 9200-year-old skeleton from the Pacific Northwest was indeed related to modern-day Indians.

New techniques allow researchers to examine DNA scraped from the bones of the skeleton called Kennewick Man.

They matched the DNA with modern-day Indians.

Until now, anthropologists weren’t certain of the skeleton’s origins and some suggested his features were vastly different from today’s Indians, and even considered the skull Caucasoid.

Others disagreed, especially indigenous people here in the Pacific Northwest.

The writer Michael Greshko asked me how I thought the story would unfold because I have studied news coverage of science and American Indians since the early 1990s, and published several articles on Kennewick Man since his remains were uncovered in the Columbia River in 1996.

Same old, same old, I said.

I predicted Indian spokespeople will say, “We knew all along. We told you so.”

Indeed: how could the skeleton be anything other than Native American?

As for the mainstream press, I said headlines will lead with the discovery of new evidence powered by DNA testing.

The news peg is what scholars refer to as What a Story coverage.

But the problem is the news still centers on science being the arbiter of truth.

Look back at the discourse when the skeleton was first filched from the river banks.

Scientists reigned supreme while Indians were seen as superstitious.

“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,” Armand Minthorn (Umatilla) told 60 Minutes.

“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.”

Local tribes fought in court to have the skeleton returned while anthropologists sued to study the bones.

When the judge ruled against the tribes, the scientists were applauded for saving the day.

“Without [the scientist’s] intervention and subsequent analysis the important information provided by the Kennewick Man remains would more than likely have been lost to science,” according to one publication.

Reporters pepper their stories with winners and losers caught in a war zone.

For this week’s Washington Post and NPR, “the scientists won.” For NBC, “Kennewick Man still has much to teach scientists.”

On the fringes of the story is the question of what happens next.

Many of the sources interviewed predict the skeleton will—and should—be returned to tribes as requested 19 years ago and in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

But scientists demure, saying “we still have a lot to learn.”

One even told a reporter she “can’t accept the idea that culture should trump science.”

My question is: why should any scientific investigation trump any culture’s deeply held beliefs that are considered inseparable from our knowledge system and what we regard as sacred?

Image by © Marty Two Bulls, from Indian Country Today



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, Kennewick Man, NAGPRA and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Kennewick Man’s back in the news

  1. Cynthia-Lou, I believe science students should be required to take a course that discusses the history of the misuses of science i cultural context. Perhaps they would then be more reflexive about their work, and the ways it can be misused.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In spring I’m scheduled to teach a class on science communication: I may start with phrenology and the classification of race. Thanks for your insightful comments


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