The Color of Bones

How a 9,000-year-old skeleton called Kennewick Man sparked the strangest case of racial profiling yet.By SCOTT L. MALCOMSON


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  • What first tipped off James Chatters to the skull's possible European traits was how the nose projected. As the forensic anthropologist looked closer, he found other clues: how the face itself projected between the eyes and upper lip and how narrow the face was; the delicate lower jaw; the long, narrow cranium; and the absence of flaring cheekbones. Photograph by James Chatters/Applied Paleoscience. 

    When Will Thomas and Dave Deacy waded along the western shore of the Columbia River one hot Sunday afternoon in 1996, they were not expecting to spark a crisis in American anthropology, or fuel a debate over the peopling of the Americas or further poison relations between Native Americans and the rest of society. The young friends were trying to sneak into the Water Follies, an annual event for residents of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, three riverside Washington towns just north of Oregon that are known as the Tri-Cities. Then Thomas hit something hard and round with his foot. He picked it up and saw that it was a skull. Thomas and Deacy stashed it in some bushes, then turned their attention to the final Columbia Cup hydroplane race, the highlight of the follies.

    After the race, Thomas and Deacy returned to the skull. They took the skull to a law-enforcement officer; the sheriff's office gave it and other bones found at the site to the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson. The coroner called James Chatters, a forensic anthropologist who runs a business, Applied Paleoscience, from a ground-floor room in his modest Richland home. He thought the skull was of a white man in his 50's who had died 100 years ago or more. However, the man had an ancient-looking stone projectile stuck in his right hip, which has not been common among whites for ages. He sent part of one finger bone away for carbon dating. The news came back that whoever this man was, he had died about 9,000 years ago. Dave Deacy told The Tri-City Herald, "It's hard to imagine someone that old in the Columbia Basin."

    The effort to imagine Kennewick Man, as he came to be called, has been going on ever since, in what must be the strangest instance yet of racial profiling. None of the participants in the Kennewick saga have relished using the language of race, yet it seems to crop up at every juncture. Local Native American leaders imagine Kennewick Man as an ancestor and want to rebury him as soon as possible. But because no one tribe can assert an exclusive tie to that strip of the Columbia River -- and because the bones are so old -- the Native American claim has quickly become more "racial" than tribal. Scientists interested in studying Kennewick Man have sometimes abandoned caution in describing what one anthropologist called a 9,000-year-old "white person." Soon enough, the media spread far and wide the possibility of a European wandering across North America many millenniums ahead of schedule.


    Scott L. Malcomson is the author of "One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race," to be published in October.

    It is as if we cannot help thinking in terms of race even when we don't want to. "History offered a feeble and delusive smile at the sound of the word race," Henry Adams wrote back in 1918. "Evolutionists and ethnologists disputed its very existence; no one knew what to make of it; yet, without the clue, history was a fairy tale." Race has come to be a concept we use to make sense of our world, but the line between "making sense" and just making things up, between reasonableness and fantasy, has always been vague in racial matters. In the rather ghoulish case of Kennewick Man, that line has all but disappeared. 

    From young Will Thomas onward, the Kennewick story has been one of chance occurrences and unintended consequences. Because that bit of shoreline where the skeleton was found is property controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, the remains came under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (Nagpra). The act requires federal agencies to consult with local tribes when remains are found on federal land. Five native groups expressed an interest to the corps: the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Nez Percé, the Yakima Indian Nation, the Wanapum band and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

    By that time, local news coverage had made it clear that if one or more tribes gained possession of Kennewick Man, the remains would probably not be studied, or if they were, it would be at the Indians' discretion. Soon, new claimants emerged. Several whites who wanted the bones to be studied filed claims with the corps, using possible ancestry as a cover for gaining possession. A few other claimants said they thought Kennewick Man actually was their ancestor, on dim ethnic grounds (Scandinavian, Celt). And then there was the Asatru Folk Assembly in Northern California, which is seeking to revive (or invent) a quasi-Norse tribal identity.

    The Kennewick Controversy
    ?National Park Service Documents

    ?United States District Court Case

    "There's a perception among the Indians that this is a joke," Stephen McNallen, founder of Asatru, told me over preprandial wine, cheese and crackers at his home in the woods near Nevada City, about 60 miles from Sacramento. But the Asatru claim on Kennewick Man -- that he might have been European and that scientists should be permitted to determine whether he was, and if he was, the Asatru, a loosely affiliated group, should be permitted to bury him with full ancient European respect, whatever that might be -- was not a joke. The Asatru claim was, McNallen believed, identical to those of the Indians and just as legitimate. When he heard that Kennewick Man might be white, he e-mailed the Umatillas in a friendly, one-tribalist-to-another way. But the Indians, he told me, couldn't shake the feeling that he, his wife, Sheila, and the several hundred or so other Asatru believers were making fun of them.

    McNallen, originally from Texas, became interested in Odinism, a pre-Christian religion with roots in northern Europe, 30 years ago in the course of parting with his parents' Catholicism. The immediate spur was a historical novel, "The Viking." McNallen was attracted by the warrior spirit, the passion and adventure. Later, he found many similarities between Odinism and Native American tribal spirituality. He wrote an article against "wannabes" (white people who want to be Indians), telling them that in pagan days "our way of living was much like that of the American Indians whom you admire. The Earth was our mother, Thor rattled in the thunder, Odin led the Wild Hunt, Freyja showed us that women could be both beautiful and strong."

    McNallen, an Army veteran, is a tall, fit, powerful man and a little disappointed at having entered his 50's. He still fills out his polo shirt impressively, has a well-trimmed beard and might be seen as Thor-like. The Asatru, McNallen says, feel a connection to anyone "whose essence we carry." This link of kinship "transcends time and space" and is like a "folk soul." When McNallen heard news of Kennewick Man, he thought there might be a connection to the folk soul. Only scientific study, including DNA analysis, could, in the Asatru view, settle the question of whether Kennewick Man had the same racial essence as Stephen McNallen and other Europeans. After being rebuffed by the Indians, the Asatru, as Americans, not just Odinists, decided to sue.

    One of the odinist-Americans' arguments was that they were being denied equal protection of the law as required by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The question was, Why should Indians be the only ones whose racial essence is recognized by law, in this case Nagpra?

    In truth, the act does not recognize an Indian race as such. Federal Indian law recognizes tribes. Nonetheless, all of those tribes happen also to be Native American, and tribal membership is based on genealogy, so the layperson might be forgiven for thinking that federal law considers Indians a race. 

    Stephen McNallen: The Asatru leader who seeks bonds to Viking ancestors. Photograph by Eve Fowler for The New York Times.

    Equal-protection claims are the cutting edge of race law. Opponents of affirmative action have successfully argued that discrimination on behalf of various nonwhite groups constitutes a denial of equal protection to whites. Indeed, one very good reason that lawmakers and courts have been reluctant to recognize Indians as a race is precisely that such recognition would create equal-protection problems. Another, related reason is that recognizing a race would mean having to define it.

    And that is where science comes in. The Indians, the Odinists and miscellaneous private claimants were joined in the battle over Kennewick Man by eight eminent scientists. They share an interest in new theories about the settlement of the Americas and, for them, Kennewick Man is valuable evidence, joining less than a dozen well-preserved skeletons more than 8,000 years old. These plaintiffs believe the Army Corps of Engineers did not submit the remains to adequate scientific examination.

    Internal corps communications abundantly make clear that the corps hoped to give the bones to whatever Indian group wanted them, and the sooner the better. The alternative, of course, was for the corps to determine, somehow, what sort of person was likely to have been deposited along the Columbia river 9,000 years ago -- a difficult and politically fraught undertaking, but this is what the scientists, what science, would like to see happen.

    Nagpra does not distinguish between ancient and modern remains. It simply requires that remains be given to interested "indigenous," or Native American, groups who can demonstrate the likelihood of descent from, or cultural affiliation with, the dead person in question. But the act does not define "indigenous," and this gives scientists a point of entry into the debate.

    The scientists believe that if any group can say who came to America when, it is theirs. Among the plaintiffs are researchers at the forefront of investigations into the peopling of the Americas. These and other scientists have been working for years, in some cases decades, on studies that all point toward roughly the same conclusions: that the Americas were settled over a lengthy period by different types of people and that the direct ancestors of what we call Native Americans were merely one group among several. These ancestors were also not the first group of what John Jelderks, the district court judge hearing the scientists' case, has referred to as "immigrants." The scientists pursuing such paleo-American studies appear to be near the point of crossing from the wilderness of crankdom into the calm civilization of scientific orthodoxy. Kennewick Man is their test case for deciding how much power they will have in determining the meaning of "indigenous" and whether their minority position will become tomorrow's scientific consensus.

    As far as James Chatters was concerned, the relevance of his finding European characteristics in the skull was not that Kennewick Man was white but that he did not look Indian.
     

    For much of the 20th century, the scientific consensus had been that Native Americans came here during a relatively brief period of time across a land bridge that existed where there is now the Bering Strait. Therefore, all Native Americans were thought to be "related," though even those maintaining this view were troubled by, among other things, the diversity of languages, physical appearances and material cultures in pre-Columbian America.

    The newer studies, based on data gathered as a result of technical advances in radiocarbon dating and using such techniques as statistical comparisons of cranial measurements, have concentrated on evidence that cannot be fit into the old single-migration model. Luzia, a skeleton found in Brazil and thought to be 11,500 years old, seems to have Negroid features. Some scientists have found Polynesian traits in early skeletons from the Peruvian coast and evidence of an early Japanese and Chinese presence on the North American coast. 

    Even among the more adventurous scientists in the field, the consensus is holding, for now, that all or most pre-Columbian Americans came from northern Asia and, at the outside, Southeast Asia. However, the public imagination, and to a degree the scientific imagination, has tended to fasten on the possibility of ancient Europeans reaching America prior to the ancestors of Native Americans. Within the scientific literature, ancient European migration is in a contest with African migration for last place. Nevertheless, when the lead plaintiff in the scientists' lawsuit, Robson Bonnichsen, tried to explain in a court affidavit why Kennewick Man deserved careful study, he said current science suggests "that the earliest inhabitants of this continent may have no modern descendants. . . . Multiple colonizing groups appear to be represented and many of the oldest studied skeletons have strong Caucasian skeletal features."

    To make the circle complete, the plaintiff scientists' lawyers argued that their clients were being denied equal protection of the law because they "are all Caucasian Americans." So while "science" may not recognize race, scientists (and their lawyers) sometimes do, when it suits their purposes.

    Perhaps no one finds this more irritating than James Chatters, who has had to take the blame for starting it all. I visited him late one morning this past winter at his Richland home. He was carving away at a cylinder of mud from a pond in Kentucky, looking for pollen and carbon samples. When he finished, we discussed how Kennewick Man became white. As far as Chatters is concerned, the relevance of his finding European characteristics in the skull was not that Kennewick Man was white but that he did not look Indian. He blamed the media for picking up the ancient-white-man theme. "He's not white," Chatters told me, his voice rising. "He's green!" 

    I was taken aback. Chatters, who is a small, quick and visibly nervous (though affable) man, bounded around his worktable to a surface next to me and pulled up an opaque cover to reveal . . . Kennewick Man. He was indeed green, a head modeled of clay atop an armature wrapped in black friction tape.

    "Does he look white to you?" Chatters asked.

    James Chatters: The forensic anthropologist who sparked the controversy. Photograph by Eve Fowler for The New York Times.

    I stared at Kennewick Man and tried my best. I had to say that he did not look white; nor did he look like any other color, except green. I had read in the papers that he looked like the actor Patrick Stewart, but I couldn't see the resemblance, not that I have had the opportunity to closely examine Patrick Stewart's face. 

    Chatters was kind enough not to sound triumphant, although I had just supported his thesis: that Kennewick Man, like other ancient American skulls, indicates a population that predates modern craniofacial divisions -- that is, the differing appearances we sometimes call races. Chatters is just finishing a book on Kennewick Man that will present this argument. He took me over to his computer and showed me a graph he had made. It compared the craniofacial dimensions of several ancient American skeletons, including Kennewick Man, with those of modern Europeans, Africans, Asians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. The paleo-Americans were grouped over to the left, while all the others were clustered on the right. The paleo-Americans -- all seven of them, men only -- showed more variation among themselves than the other groups did compared with one another. Indeed, one of the paleo-Americans, whom Chatters seemed not to want to discuss, was tucked away all by himself in a far corner of the graph, like a wallflower. When you are dealing with such a small sample population, of course, one anomaly can really throw things off. In any case, Chatters believes this shows that ancient Americans were external to modern racial divisions. That does not mean that one or more of them weren't ancestral to modern Native Americans, only that they didn't look like modern Native Americans.

    I wondered about these classifications and the databases that reflected them. When, in the early 20th century, anthropological science abandoned the idea of races as both scientifically unsound and morally hideous, it turned to population characteristics and tracing how populations moved from place to place. In looking at these populations with the available evidence (skeletons, DNA, material cultures, languages), the tendency has been to think of them as discrete peoples; otherwise they would not be identifiable as different from one another. So the geographical terms Africa, Asia, Europe, Pacific Islands and America replaced the racial terms.

    You can't help noticing, however, that the new terms refer, or can be understood as referring, to the same populations as the old racial terms. This is particularly clear in the Kennewick Man controversy, in the course of which scientists, not to mention journalists and politicians, have found themselves drifting into the language of race, rather in spite of their personal inclinations. The ancient American skulls don't look like modern Native American skulls, which is to say they don't appear to be of the same race-population group as modern Indians.

    There is a certain circularity of argument at work here: races (or Africans, Asians, Europeans) may be identified by how different they look from one another, and they look different from one another because they are races (or are Asian, African, European). Ask a racial question; get a racial answer.

    Native American tribes, unlike more recent population groups who have arrived in America, have not tended to consider looks very important in deciding who a person is. In contemplating themselves, they have not thought much about skull dimensions, the frequency of mitochondrial DNA haplogroups or the Bering Land Bridge. What being a member of a given tribe means and what being an Indian means are not, for those most concerned by them, scientific questions. Native American life has a place, admittedly unscientific, for the barrel-chested Indian man in black on karaoke night at the Branding Iron in Toppenish, Wash., as he gripped the mike, dedicating a mournful country song to his wife, "the most beautiful woman I ever married." Then, too, there is a place for the full-figured young Indian woman who followed him with a Motley Crue tune. There is also room for the man who spoke of Indian unity, and the man who boasted that his tribe had enslaved other tribes. ("We were the first slaveholders in America!") 

    White people (of various skull shapes) are also a significant presence in and around Indian country, among them James Chatters -- who told me he has lost many of his Indian friends over the Kennewick business -- and, arguably, his part-Indian wife and their daughter. It was Chatters who suggested I talk to Rex Buck, a religious leader of the Wanapum band, up the Columbia River from where Kennewick Man was found.

    Rex Buck: The Wanapum Indian who views scientists as spiritual intruders. Photograph by Eve Fowler for The New York Times.

    The Wanapum band's core population lives in a village called Priest Rapids, at the base of the Priest Rapids Dam. To reach the Wanapum village -- about a dozen houses, each painted a different color -- you have to drive across the dam. The Wanapum are not recognized as a tribe by the federal government. The Wanapum do not have a casino or a flag, or sovereignty, or anything for sale. They have almost no property and no political power. Their village is not on maps.

    At the band's communal long house, I met Buck, who was sitting on a sofa near a picture of an eagle and an American flag. His hair was pulled back and in braids. He wore moccasins, as did the other people in the long house, because they had just finished a seven-drums ceremony that included dancing on the rectangle of earth that ran down the middle of the house. The rectangle, Buck explained, was aligned according to the trajectories of the stars.

    Buck said that the Wanapum had not suffered inordinately from white attention. His people had still been fishing for salmon and using buildings made from reeds as recently as the 1940's. Buck said that the Priest Rapids area "seemed like there was nothing, desolated, to people who come here. Wasn't good for anything. Was too ugly. But to the Indian it was beautiful and had everything he needed and she needed." 

    When non-Indians finally took an interest in the remote area, the Wanapum faced a choice. "I could sit here, and I could victimize myself," Buck said as his son stood nearby, his wife sat on the next couch and his grandson played on the floor. "I could say: 'No, you owe me this, you owe me that. You did this to me, you did that to me; that's why I'm the way I am.' I could have done that. But our elders, my parents -- my dad, he spoke a little bit of English; he could only write his name. But he had two hands, two feet; he was willing to learn; he was willing to work. When we were growing up, he encouraged us to learn your language, to learn what your livelihoods were. He said, 'You have to have a friendship relationship with the people in order to stay here."'

    The scientific wish to have control over Kennewick Man does not augur well for that friendship relationship. Buck places Kennewick Man within a tradition of ancestors whose rest has been disturbed by people with college degrees, people who believe their own understanding of life is both superior to that of the Indians and free of self-interest, people who have arrived from time to time to "stir around our remains, like they don't mean anything. Then they go back, and we pick up the pieces with a heavy heart and tears in our eyes. And we ask the Creator that he might forgive those ones that do that, for they must not know any better."

    In his hesitant English, Buck tried to explain that his tribe's land had in it words from the Creator, and that the land was the means for God to speak to humans. One means for humans to speak to their Creator was by returning themselves to the earth. Being buried gave people a permanent place in this conversation with forces greater than they.

    "Our ancestors have returned back to the earth," he said. "Their body has become earth, as the word was put here. And their heart returned, and their life and spirit went on. But it's of no significance to the nonunderstanding race. But yet it holds the sacredness of the words that were passed through their generation, that are still living today. Those words were passed through those people that had no significance." As for Kennewick Man, "he, too, was almost dirt. He, too, was giving himself back."

    The conversation among people, land, Creator and ancestors is open-ended and not obviously purposeful. "To really understand the people of here," Buck said, "this place, how it was, how it came to be -- those things live every day, not just one day. You walk outside, and you listen to what the water is telling you. You listen to the things that are around you. And you interpret that earth."

    After I left Buck, I looked up at the mountains above Priest Rapids. They looked different than they had before we spoke, more complexly surfaced and more beautiful. I knew I was a member of the "nonunderstanding race." Buck believed himself to be in the understanding race. So we were still stuck in races, Buck and I. But the mountains did look different now.

    At some point, probably next fall, the government will have to tell the court whether it will allow the scientists to examine Kennewick Man. (The Asatru tribalists have withdrawn their suit.) If the government refuses, Judge Jelderks may well open the case for trial. He has indicated in court papers that he would like the parties to argue before him what "indigenous" means, since that is apparently, in his opinion, key to applying Nagpra. It is a different way of phrasing the question, What is an Indian?

    "The silliness of all this, to us," Jerry Meninick, vice chairman of the Yakima Nation council, told me, is the notion that "the judicial system is scientific, that it has the credentials to make a scientific determination. We think not." Meninick said he believed that if the court finds for the scientist plaintiffs, then the tribes will challenge pretty much anything done or proposed by anyone calling himself a scientist.


    The new studies all point toward roughly the same conclusions: that the Americas were settled over a lengthy period and that the direct ancestors of what we call Native Americans were merely one group among several.
     
    As scientists seek links between 9,000-year-old skeletons and modern people, they need evidence. Scientists always need more evidence; theirs is an ongoing inquiry, and from this perspective, Kennewick Man cannot be reburied because you never know when a new technique might come along and you would have to dig the man up again. (He is now under lock and key at a Seattle museum.) Nor should other bones be reburied, as is currently happening under Nagpra. As Bonnichsen and Douglas Owsley, a fellow plaintiff, have pointed out, all those bones of dead Indians collected over the years have scientific value. Nagpra has, indeed, touched off a new interest in studying Native American bones -- precisely the opposite of what it was intended to do.

    The scientists' opponents in the Kennewick case also recognize the problem of evidence. The Department of the Interior, led by the National Parks Service's chief archaeologist, Francis McManamon, has commissioned a number of studies on Kennewick Man. These studies, still incomplete, seem to lean toward the possibility that there is a plausible affiliation between the dead man and one or more modern tribes. Of course, some of these studies have themselves relied on earlier studies performed on the very bones that could, under Nagpra, be given to native tribes and perhaps buried.

    The trail of evidence does not stop with bones. Judge Jelderks recently gave the government six more months to do DNA testing. This raises the possibility of having to extract comparative DNA samples from other bones (say, a verified 150-year-old Umatilla skeleton that has not yet been repatriated) and perhaps to get DNA from representatives of the five claimant tribes, preferably people without an Anglo-Irish-French great-grandparent. Beyond that, on a global scale the DNA databases are also quite incomplete. For example, recent research indicates that Europeans and Native Americans share a distinctive genetic feature, but there has not been enough sampling of north Asian people to determine whether this trait came to North America by that route. So someone will have to go to eastern Siberia and persuade people to give up DNA. From a thoroughgoing scientific viewpoint, there is no dividing line between today and 9,000 years ago. This is true for many Indians too, but they tend to communicate with their dead without digging them up. 

    One might have thought that ancient bones could be bracketed as prehistory and removed from contention. If the scientists most actively seeking those bones weren't so interested in finding non-Indian, pre-Indian Native Americans, matters might indeed have turned out different. But ancient bones are of interest because of what they might tell us about ourselves. It isn't their remoteness that fascinates, but their potential for closeness. We look for what we might have in common with them. This probably explains why even some scientists have looked at Kennewick Man and seen a white person. They find a connection by that means. Race, however, is our category, not Kennewick Man's.

    The problem is that most human groupings, including races, are highly subjective. Looking for objective scientific answers to subjective human questions -- like what a Native American is or the meaning of ancestry -- can distort both science and humans. Tribes already depend on anthropologists and historians in order to secure federal recognition. The Kennewick Man case raises the prospect of their needing to depend in the future on geneticists or perhaps craniometrists. For a federal judge to be sifting through the current science in order to reach a "final" answer to the question, What does indigenous mean? seems rather curious and arbitrary. But then the Kennewick Man story has been curious, and not a little arbitrary, ever since Will Thomas and Dave Deacy went to the Water Follies. Which helps to explain why the participants in the story have so often reached for racial language -- so curious, so arbitrary -- to try to make sense of it.