Stereotypes, Trust, And Kennewick Man

Spring 2003

By Stentor Danielson

On July 28, 1996, a pair of boaters found a human skull in Kennewisk, WA that would become a focal point for the ongoing controversy between archaeologists and Native Americans. The Department of the Interior initially wanted to give the skeleton to the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Colville, and Wanapum tribes, who laid claim to Kennewick Man. A group of archaeologists were able to obtain the bones while the case worked its way through court, and a final decision has not yet been made.

Archaeologists have a long history of stereotyping Native Americans in order to lay claim to archaeological materials. The essence of a stereotype is power -- the power to define who and what the stereotyped people are. So it's no surprise that archaeology and racism were closely interconnected for much of the discipline's history. Archaeologists saw Native Americans as savages, destined to die out to make room for the more advanced white race. This view allowed them to dismiss Native religion as outdated superstition, and dig up Native burials without troubling their consciences. Natives weren't people equal to whites. Rather, they were objects of scientific curiosity, remnants of a lower stage in human development. Archaeology was used to prove the bases of stereotypes, as well. For example, skull measurements were tabulated in order to show that Native Americans were less advanced than whites.

Such blatant racism has, thankfully, passed from most archaeological circles. Anthropology -- of which archaeology is a part -- has taken up the task of deconstructing myths about race. Nevertheless, many archaeologists maintain the view that living Native Americans are irrelevant or obstructions to archaeology.

At the same time, archaeologists engage in self-stereotyping as well. They define their role as Scientists, the producers and guardians of all valid knowledge. Furthermore, that knowledge is universal. Whereas Native Americans want to keep their ancestors' remains for parochial reasons, archaeological knowledge is the heritage of the entire human race.

Native Americans reacted to this (and to other elements of American race relations) with counter-images of themselves and archaeologists. Archaeologists, they said, were fundamentally grave robbers. This image was based on the reprehensible facts of archaeology's history. Archaeologists did dig up remains in violation of Native customs, often in ways that would be violations of white customs if the grave were a European's. Archaeology is, in this view, simply an exercise of power, designed to claim for whites the right to define who Native Americans were. For example, they argued that the Bering land bridge theory -- the prevailing archaeological explanation of the origin of Native Americans -- was meant to undermine the legitimacy of Native claims by suggesting that they too were just migrants, rather than indigenous to the American continent.

Sometimes the counter-stereotyping can be taken to extremes. For example, prominent Native American intellectual Vine Deloria Jr.'s book Red Earth, White Lies is a breathless denouncement of all Western science, which he sees as a project to undermine Native claims to knowledge. In tearing down science, Deloria advances a popular Native American self-stereotype -- the image of the responsible, religious, indigenous people committed to preserving their traditions.

The central issue in the Kennewick Man case is one of defining identity -- specifically, Kennewick Man's identity. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, human remains and burial objects must be returned to Native American tribes who can demonstrate a connection to those materials.

The archaeologists who want to study Kennewick Man claim that he is not related enough to the modern Native Americans who claim him as an ancestor. Their argument is based on biological and cultural continuity. While initial reports claimed that Kennewick Man was "Caucasoid" and presented a reconstruction of his face that resembled white actor Patrick Stewart (a development which no doubt inflamed fears that archaeologists were attempting to undermine Native Americans' claims to be the original Americans), later study concluded that his closest relatives are aboriginal Asian people such as the Ainu of Japan. Furthermore, archaeologists were skeptical of how closely Kennewick Manís culture resembled the way of life of Washington's modern Native American residents -- a lot can change in 9,000 years. On this basis, archaeologists concluded that Kennewick Man had no living relatives and thus should be the property of science.

The involved Native Americans resisted such attempts by science to define who is really related to who. They consider the primary form of relatedness to be continuity of place. Much like modern American history books often trace our nation's roots back to the Iroquois and Navajo rather than the Vikings and Romans, Native Americans often consider all people who lived on their land before them to be their ancestors, because it is the land which is most crucial to who they are. Further, the concerned tribes' religion refutes the idea that Kennewick Man could lack cultural or biological continuity with present Natives, because they believe that they were created in their traditional lands, rather than migrants from Siberia.

The Kennewick Man dispute thus involves a clash of two seemingly irreconcilable worldviews. Yet in many other cases around the country, archaeologists and Native Americans have been able to work together. The crucial piece missing from the Kennewick Man case is trust. Both sides insist on their claim to be able to define Kennewick Manís identity because they have defined the other side as irreconcilably hostile to their interests.

Despite fears that NAGPRA would stifle scientific inquiry, many archaeologists -- even those whose specialty is studying human remains -- have found their work not only not hurt, but even helped, by legislation that forced them to interact with living Native Americans. Similarly, Native Americans are increasingly warming to the idea that archaeology can teach them some important things about their heritage. Both sides have found ways to make certain concessions, forgoing potentially valuable projects out of sensitivity to Native values or rethinking traditional religious practices to accommodate scientific research. There are even a small number of Native Americans entering the field of archaeology, finding it possible (though often difficult, depending on the tribal and scientific context) to balance the two sides.

Stereotypes on either side prevent the building of trust. They convince the participants that Native Americans and archaeologists must be antagonists, that their interests are necessarily opposed. A victory for once side is thus seen as a defeat for the other, and erosion of their power to define their identity and heritage. The archaeologists and Native Americans who have built trusting relationships have done so by moving beyond their fixed notions of the participants. Archaeologists have had to face up to the scientific hubris of the discipline, asking themselves how important their research really is, compared to the values of the Native Americans affected. Too often, we defend the prerogatives of science on principle rather than considering the actual importance of the study to society. Native Americans, on the other hand, have come to see that most archaeologists today are not bent on desecrating their traditions, and that archaeological interpretations need not be seen as challenges to their traditional views.

Antagonistic stereotypes are hardly the only issue in relations between Native Americans and archaeologists, and there will always be cases in which one side or the other is disappointed in the resolution (as is the case when archaeologists or Native Americans dispute among themselves). But assumptions about the other side's motives and intentions, as well as oneís own side's importance, and the tendency to treat resolution of NAGPRA cases as a power struggle, put up barriers between Native Americans and archaeologists. These barriers inhibit either side from learning as much as possible about America's past.

Back to

All material © 2000-2003 by Eemeet Meeker Online Enterprises, to the extent that slapping up a copyright notice constitutes actual copyright protection.