This past weekend we learned in the local news that remains of a 9500-year old skeleton discovered on American Indian land 20 years ago have been returned.
In honor of the decision by President Obama and Congress, I’ve reblogged my recent comments about the skeleton.
For 20 years I’ve studied how public discourse takes shape, thanks, in large part, to the work of graduate student Erin Dysart Hanes.
Although Erin graduated some time ago, the unearthing of the bones—called Kennewick Man by non-Indians and The Ancient One by local tribes—has been the hub in my research wheel.
The conflict arose in Indian Country when scientists wanted to study the skeleton, while indigenous communities argued that Federal law (NAGPRA) protected human remains from perturbation.
After a nine-year court battle, the judge ruled against the tribes and the skeleton was removed to the Burke Museum in Seattle, where the remains have been the subject of intensive study.
Tribal leaders long claimed that the bones—which were dug up from an area that Native people have called home for literally thousands of years—were subject to Indian laws and customs.
Two claims made headlines.
The first claim is that, like many cultures around the globe, most Pacific Northwest Indians consider removing a relative who has passed on an offensive act.
And they wanted the Ancient One returned to his proper place.
Robbing Indian graves has been a frequent pastime of greedy settlers: a fact that grieves many of us.
The second claim was that local tribes are the deciders.
Thanks to legal statute, local tribes should have been accorded their rightful place at the decision-making table.
In other words, the decision of whether to study or bury the bones rests with Indian tribes, according to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
But the courts instead listened to a group of scientists who sued to study the bones.
The group claimed “science would be harmed” if Kennewick Man couldn’t be studied.
Moreover, scientists argued that their methodology—an objective approach to studying the bones—shields them from infusing values into their judgments.
But, after studying the issue for two decades, I began to wonder if the issue isn’t about science after all, but about the meanings that undergird how we communicate about science.
Although such disputes are often presented in popular press as “science vs. anti-science,” the underpinning values attached to customs, beliefs and politics are cultural rather than scientific.
In the case of Kennewick Man, the central issue, for many indigenous people, is one of cultural autonomy and tribal rights, rather than science.
For this reason, my scholarship offers a significant contribution to the field of science communication by challenging researchers to reconsider the role of scientific and cultural rationalities in guiding judgments.
Fortunately my colleagues have found my examination of the linkages between science and culture a useful addition to the literature, and I have been invited by policy-making agencies—from the Smithsonian Institution to the Native American Journalists Association—to talk about my endeavors.
So: why should we continue to pay attention to the Kennewick Man issue, in light that the bones will soon be returned to Indian tribes?
Because issues central to American Indian cultural values are often misrepresented in the courts and in the mass media.
I argue that Kennewick Man isn’t about science: it’s about politics—specifically political and moral decisions about who gets to make decisions that impact publics that are often forgotten in decision-making.
The same argument holds for a range of other issues, including the oil pipeline the current US president has approved for construction on Native soil.
My response is that we need to ask this question: who are those who benefit most from construction of the pipeline?
9 February 2017
Here are some of my (and Erin’s) published work on Kennewick Man:
Coleman, Cynthia-Lou. Cutting to the bones of justice, in Exploring Indigenous Social Justice, J. Charlton Publishing, Ltd., Vernon, B.C. John G. Hansen and Alex Wilson, editors, 2014: 93-104.
Coleman, Cynthia-Lou. The Extermination of Kennewick Man’s Authenticity through Discourse. Wicazo Sa Review, 2013: 28(1), pp. 65-76
Coleman, Cynthia-Lou. How Kennewick Man and media constructs frame Indian identity, in American Indians and Popular Culture. Praeger Press (ABC-CLIO), Santa Barbara, California. Elizabeth DeLaney Hoffman, editor, 2012: 193-209
Coleman, Cynthia-Lou and L. David Ritchie. Examining metaphors in biopolitical discourse. Lodz Papers in Pragmatics, 2011, 7(1): 29-59
Coleman, Cynthia-Lou and Douglas Herman. (Winter 2010-2011). Ways of knowing: “Naked science” or Native wisdom, in American Indian Magazine, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, pp. 28-33
Coleman, Cynthia-Lou and Erin Dysart. Framing of Kennewick Man against the backdrop of a scientific and cultural controversy. Science Communication, 2005, 27 (1), pp. 3-26.
Coleman, Cynthia-Lou. Emergent values from American Indian discourse, in Communication Ethics and Universal Values. Sage, Newbury Park, California. Clifford Christians and Michael Traber, editors, 1997: 194-210
Coleman, Cynthia-Lou. A war of words: How news frames define legitimacy in a native conflict, in Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado. S. Elizabeth Bird, editor, 1996: 181-1