Revising America’s Original Sins

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The story of Kennewick Man is a tale that branches into anthropology, archeology, history, politics, DNA testing, our legal system, and the frustrations of simply attempting to derive a scientific truth while in conflict with bureaucracy.

Kennewick Man was discovered in 1996 quite by accident by two college students in south-central Washington state not far north of the Oregon border. They found skeletal remains in a river bank partially exposed, in the shallows of the Columbia River.


They called the authorities and the local law enforcement came to the scene.  The sheriff, the country coroner, and a local archeologist who was called in, soon determined they had found something unusual.  It was a complete skeleton, with an ancient arrowhead embedded in his hip. Subsequent carbon dating put the remains at more than 9,000 years old.  That is extraordinarily old for North American finds.

Further, these old remains did not appear to resemble what we call today “Native Americans”, and soon became entangled in the most horrific bureaucratic infighting and legal battles you can imagine.

The skeletal, especially cranial features, seemed different as later DNA tests would confirm.


In the courts, moving at glacial speed, contesting parties such as Native American Tribes, local authorities, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Smithsonian Institution, The Department of Justice, The Department of the Interior, and private lawyers and archeologists fought for a decade over the right to further examine the remains for scientific purposes.  Even the House and Senate got involved in the controversy.

At stake was a scientific discovery and the influence it would have on new theories about how and by whom, humans originally came to North America.

Native Americans did not want the remains to be studied and wished for reburial in line with their beliefs. In part, this is because Indian remains had often historically been abused. However, it also seems their oral history was also on trial.  And, their reticence may also have been an excuse to avoid a sticky question.  Maybe they were not here first?


Thus, the remains possibly endangered not only the standing of their oral history but their prime position in the victimhood pecking order.  What if what we call Native Americans killed earlier inhabitants? They frequently killed their own rivals and took over their territory, but if they wiped out a different people, they could lose their moral high ground against European invaders.  They may have acted just as the Europeans did, they conquered others. Politically, that could be awkward.

It is through the manipulation of white guilt that political concessions can be extracted.  One can appreciate that Native Americans would use what leverage they have but it would seem truth would have some societal value as well.

Meanwhile, the bureaucratic rivalry continued.

The Army Corps of Engineers wanted to take control. They had important bureaucratic turf to defend. They were in sensitive negotiations with native tribes over salmon and other water issues, and seemed disinclined to risk important projects over “a bag of old bones.”

The local county coroner wanted to maintain control of the remains as did the sheriff.  These remains were found in their jurisdiction.

Scientists wanted to study the remains, and the Department of Justice with 93 lawyers on the case squared off against two private lawyers representing the scientists. The plaintiff’s lawyers agreed to work for free, hoping they might be compensated in the future.

As is customary, the full force and wealth of government, multiple agencies, and departments with unlimited resources supplied by taxpayers, mostly supporting government-subsidized Indian Tribes, did battle with determined scientists with little or no resources at all.

At stake was an extremely rare anthropological find and the history of ancient America.

Space does not permit a full recounting of the nine-year legal battle over the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It finally boiled down to a Smithsonian attached expert and 8 other scientists in a coalition convincing a court the remains were not related to any living Indian tribe today.

As for the Army Corps of Engineers, they wanted the remains returned to the tribes, who in turn, vowed they would bury it again, this time in a secret location so the remains could never be studied.

The Court later ruled the Corps acted in bad faith and fined them heavily for the legal costs of the plaintiffs.  No institutions would come to the aid of the scientists because everyone was too afraid to sue the Federal Government.

But a determined David beat Goliath. The courts ruled the NAGPRA did not apply because the skeleton did not appear to be Native American remains or related to Native Americans living today.

It was appealed all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court and the scientists prevailed. Oddly, having won their technical legal case scientists were given just 16 days to examine the remains.  Twenty-two scientists worked frantically with over 300 bones and fragments under this severe time constraint.

The product of their work was presented in a massive 670-page volume compiled by the Smithsonian Institution and published by the Texas A &M Press in 2014 entitled Kennewick Man.

In summary, the remains do not appear to share much with present-day “Native Americans” as the courts have so ruled.   Likely Kennewick Man is more closely related to pre-Polynesians or the ancient Ainu people of Japan that arose some 16,000 years ago when Japan was more closely attached to the Asian land mass.

A later set of DNA analyses disputes these conclusions although earlier ones supported their conclusions.  However, DNA was not the sole source of their findings.  Suffice it to say, the controversy continues.

Unlike the theory of Asians moving across a land bridge in the Bering Straits, it is probable that ancient mariners hugged the coastline from Alaska, down the coast of British Columbia, and got into what is today the US Pacific Northwest.

As a later article in the Smithsonian put it:

The discovery of Kennewick Man adds a major piece of evidence to an alternative view of the peopling of North America. It, along with other evidence, suggests that the Jōmon or related peoples were the original settlers of the New World. If correct, the conclusion upends the traditional view that the first Americans came through central Asia and walked across the Bering Land Bridge and down through an ice-free corridor into North America.”

In the year 2000, an American named John Turk tested this theory by kayaking from Japan to Alaska and down the coast on what some call the “kelp highway.”  There is considerable food along this rich coast to sustain life.

While the whole story of how North America got settled is interesting on its face, the political and cultural implications are interesting as well.

It makes it difficult to say who is “indigenous” and puts American history more in line with other geographical regions’ history in the sense it is the story of one group conquering another.  Frankly, that is human history in all its messy and confused contortions.  The sea-borne nations of Europe and Asia would at some point make contact with North America.  It would simply be a matter of time and place.

If Kennewick Man is not directly related to American Indians, the special moral position that Native Americans claim is eroded because it is likely they conquered a different people, just as they fought among themselves, and just as they were in turn conquered by Europeans.

Now, it should be said this in no way diminishes the sad conflict between Europeans and “indigenous Americans” that has become along with chattel black slavery, the “original sins” of America.

But just as slavery was hardly unique to America, so is one group of migrants conquering another group of migrants in America is not historically unique either.

The history of man is one group conquering another.  Populations move around. That was in fact the history among American Indian tribes themselves.

So, if it is a sin, it is a sin committed by all peoples and all countries. Neither slavery nor subjugation of “indigenous people” is unique to the American story.  What we did about it may be unique and different, but that is after the fact.

But beyond this, the mistreatment of “indigenous people” and slavery are the two hammers that critics of America use to bash the Constitution.

The argument in simple terms goes like this:  America did not live up to the ideals of its founding documents and philosophy, therefore that founding is illegitimate and so are its founding documents. We should abandon the Constitution and adopt socialism.

This is basically the popular history of Howard Zinn, the American communist whose works dominate our school system.

But the argument could just as well go this way:  America did not always live up to its founding principles and we need to do better by applying those principles more rigorously and consistently.  There is nothing wrong with our principles. The problem is not with the principles but that we often don’t live up to them.

America is not perfect.  No country is.  Wherever ancient stone age peoples came into contact with more advanced civilizations, the outcome was not good for the natives and better for the conquerors.  Whether Kennewick Man is Native American or not, does not obviate the Constitution or the legitimacy of the Founding.

In North America, evidence now suggests that this continent was populated in a more complex and varied way than we knew before.  It may also be the case that what we call “Native Americans” conquered a pre-existing population, just as they conquered each other.

That would not make them evil.  That makes them human, just like the Europeans and everyone else.

No wonder some people wanted the Kennewick Man buried again in a secret location.  It opens up too many interesting questions.




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