Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
Bones of Contention
by Glynn Custred
Heterodoxy | February-March 2000
IN JULY 1996, a human skull was found along the Columbia River near the town of Kennewick, Washington. Anthropologist James Chatters was sent to investigate, and in nine separate trips to the discovery site was able to collect three hundred and fifty pieces of bone. He was eventually able to assemble the nearly complete skeleton of a male of medium height, between forty and forty-five years of age, with features consistent with those of a Caucasian. While washing the bones, Chatters made another discovery. Embedded in the skeleton's pelvis was a stone projectile point. The big surprise came when the artifact was identified as a type used in the region over 9,000 years ago. Indeed, subsequent radiocarbon dating showed the skeleton to be 9,300 years old.
Of all the things anthropologists study, nothing excites public interest more than ancient and prehistory. Kennewick Man, as the skeleton was now known, was no exception. In fact, it received perhaps even more press coverage than usual because of its Caucasoid features. A facial reconstruction of the skull appeared so Caucasian that one observer commented in a widely publicized comparison that Kennewick Man resembled TV actor Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame.
What was a guy looking like the captain of the starship Enterprise doing wandering around the Pacific Northwest some 8,800 years before Columbus was even born? Where did he come from? What happened to his people? Why did they leave no descendants? In this regard, one wag said, Kennewick Man, with an arrowhead embedded in his pelvis, was a case of cowboys and Indians where the Indians won.
Indian activists weren't amused, for the present system of incentives and rewards in which they operate depends on the constant assertion of Indian victimhood and white guilt. Such assertions would not be helped if it turned out that Indians weren't the first Americans after all; that Europeans may have been here before them; or that Indians, like the Europeans who followed, may have come to America as colonizers to find a racially different aboriginal population, which they eventually replaced. For them it is better that as little as possible be known about Kennewick Man, or about any other ancient skeletal material for that matter.
The context in which skeletal material is found is important in its interpretation. For this reason, archaeologists wanted to investigate the Kennewick site more systematically. They petitioned the United States Army Corps of Engineers, in whose jurisdiction the site is located, for permission to excavate. Not only was permission denied, but in April 1998, after a meeting held at the White House on the matter, the Army Corps dumped five hundred tons of rock and gravel on the site from a helicopter, then layered the shoreline with three hundred tons of dirt and logs. They then planted trees on top of the newly configured terrain, at a cost of $1,600. Geologist Tom Stafford said of the work that "the Corps destroyed as much of the site as fast as possible. It is like they hit it with a nuclear bomb." The reason given by the Corps for this rapid and efficient action was to "stabilize" the river bank.
All this, even though the site had been registered as a national landmark, and despite the fact that Congress had just passed a bill that would have preserved it. Why did the federal bureaucracy so adamantly oppose any scientific investigation of a federally registered historic site? One source close to a nearby Indian tribe said this was done to oblige Indian activists who wanted no more digging in that area. And why did the case go as high as the White House and thus to the top level of government? One journalist observed that the Clinton Administration has never seen a multicultural demand it didn't like. Others speculated that the site was destroyed as a favor to a former roommate of Hillary Clinton, now a federal prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, who has a special passion for politically correct Indian affairs. Others wonder if it might have something to do with the murky and scandal-ridden activities of White House fund raisers. No one outside the inner circle of the White House has the answer, and it is doubtful anyone ever will. With the destruction of the site, however, one avenue into the exploration of America's past was cut off.
The possession of the bones themselves has been in contention since news was released as to their antiquity. A coalition of Indians living in eastern Washington state claimed the remains of their reputed ancestor, despite the age of the bones and despite the obvious physical differences between the skeleton and living Indians. This claim was made under provisions of a law enacted by Congress in 1990 known as the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. This law mandates that any institution receiving federal funds must inventory its collection of Indian human remains and artifacts. Then once "cultural affiliation" has been established the material must be turned over to the appropriate tribe. NAGPRA has been extended by interpretation to apply to any cultural material inadvertently found on federal land. When such cultural material has been "repatriated," the new owners can do anything they want with it.
One of the problems with NAGPRA is that it draws no line beyond which cultural material can be claimed by a living community. Since no community can be traced back earlier than five to six hundred years, ancient remains like Kennewick Man presumably fall outside the provisions of the law. The National Park Service, however, has declared that any cultural material older than 1492 is "Native American." Also, "Native American" communities living nearest a discovery site are "culturally affiliated" and can therefore claim the material as their property. In the case of Kennewick Man, the closest tribes are the Umatilla, the Nez Perce, the Yakama, and the Colville Confederation, which form the coalition claiming the bones.
When the Indians made their claim, the Army Corps of Engineers demanded possession of the bones from the Benton County coroner, with the intention of turning them over to the coalition for immediate burial. To the dismay of the coroner and the county attorney, the Army Corps also demanded that all records concerning the case be turned over to them as well, presumably in an attempt to bury any information from the public record as deeply as the bones.
But Kennewick Man is a valuable find, and a number of scientists wanted to study it before burial. Several of them requested access to the skeleton, but the Army Corps refused. The scientists then wrote the Umatilla asking for a dialogue. They were ignored. So, in October 1996 eight prominent scientists sued under NAGPRA for the right to examine the skeleton.
In a separate action, a group calling itself the Astaru Folk Assembly mimicked the tribal coalition by initiating a suit of its own to force DNA tests on the remains. Astaru claims to be a pre-Christian religious sect. Its intention was to claim Kennewick Man as their ancestor on religious grounds, if the skeleton turned out to be Caucasian. Eventually, however, the Astaru Folk group dropped its suit. Joseph Powell of the University of New Mexico was eventually allowed to examine the bones. He found that Kennewick Man was not Caucasian but instead resembled the Ainu of northern Japan and modern southern Asians more than any other living group.
The race of Kennewick Man, however, is not the only issue. Of more importance to the activists is control of all cultural material pertaining to native population, in an effort to establish their exclusive ownership of the past.
Government backing of narrowly defined ethnic politics, however, is a recent policy. Until NAGPRA, and similar laws on the state level, cultural material found on public land was considered to be public property, to be preserved for the public good and studied by scientists and scholars in order to learn more about our common human heritage. This is no longer the case.
Litigation over Kennewick Man, begun in October 1996 and still in the courts, has been a long, wearisome process of bureaucratic stalling and obstruction, of contradictions and secrecy, of double talk and obfuscation, of bureaucratic arrogance and violations of the law, and eventually the destruction of archaeological evidence. While scientists were denied any access to the skeleton, Indians came and went as they pleased, purportedly to perform "religious" ceremonies. In the process, parts of the femurs turned up missing and some bones were "unintentionally turned over to the tribes." The court finally ordered the skeleton to be sent to another facility. In October, 1997, a year after the scientists filed their suit, the bones were transferred to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle for proper curation.
In February 1997, the court chastised the Army Corps for its decision to turn over the bones to the claimants without having performed tests to establish "cultural affiliation." The judge also said that the Corps's decision to "repatriate" the bones and its refusal to give scientists access to them were in keeping with the agency's "commitment to the tribal coalition." In other words, the Army Corps of Engineers followed the wishes of the coalition in violation of the law. The court thus vacated the decision of the Corps of Engineers and called for a further review of the case. The judge also dictated certain guidelines for future action by the government.
Scientists were prevented from excavating the discovery site, yet the tribes were given permission for a limited excavation. In December 1997, the government conducted its own superficial excavation before the site was destroyed the following spring. They refused to release any information, though, until forced to do so in January of the following year. The report when finally released contained only inadequate and conflicting data.
In March 1998 the government consolidated its resources by transferring the case from the Army Corps of Engineers to the National Park Service under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. The court finally forced the Park Service to conduct a belated investigation to establish cultural affiliation. The observer for the plaintiffs complained that some of the personnel selected for the investigation were inexperienced for this kind of task; that wrong samples were taken; and that the entire enterprise was wasteful and badly handled. In fact, the observer describes the process as "misdirected science," all at a cost to the taxpayers of well over a million dollars, with the bill still rising.
James Chatters, the anthropologist who assembled the skeleton for the coroner's office, also claims that he has been personally harassed by the government, intimidated by its lawyers, questioned by the FBI, and subjected to a campaign to ruin his business, all because he spoke out on a scientific matter in defiance of an ethnic interest group with friends in high places. One accusation floating around is that Chatters is a white supremacist who has perpetrated a fraud in an effort to show that whites were here before the Indians. Even many of Chatters's colleagues criticize him, accusing him of failing to follow proper archeological procedures when in fact he was following a forensic protocol as stipulated by his contract with the coroner. The plaintiffs in the suit have also come under fire. They have been accused of racism by activists and of insensitivity by some of their colleagues, who disapprove of their audacious politically incorrect act.
Similar treatment was given to another anthropologist in a case very much like the one from Kennewick. This case involved a skull, known as Spirit Cave Man, which was discovered in a rock-shelter in Western Nevada in 1940 and radiocarbon dated in 1994 at 9,400 years. Like other skulls more than 8,000 years old, Spirit Cave Man's physical features were different from those of living American Indians. This is illustrated with a facial reconstruction that was exhibited at the Nevada State Museum along with the cranium. Local Indians demanded possession of the cranium. They also demanded that the facial reconstruction be withdrawn and that educational material on Spirit Cave Man be withheld from the public.
The museum assigned its staff anthropologist to establish cultural affinity. After an investigation, the staff anthropologist reported that there was no affinity between Spirit Cave Man and the Fallon Pauite, who claimed the skull, for the Fallon Paiute were relative newcomers to the region, having displaced an earlier population there. The account of the displacement of earlier inhabitants was even recorded in the oral traditions of the claimant tribe, a significant fact since oral traditions are admissible as evidence in establishing cultural affiliation.
At first the museum administration stuck to the findings of their staff anthropologist. After a change of administration in the state government, however, the administration reversed its policy. The anthropologist was asked to change her report. She refused to do so. The report was then rejected, its author removed from the case and forbidden to talk to anyone about scientific facts regarding Spirit Cave Man. She was accused by Indian activists of being "racist" and a cultural "predator," and shunned by some of her colleagues. Information on Spirit Cave Man was withdrawn from the museum and the skull was given to the claimants who buried it.
These are by no means isolated events, but examples of a shift in public policy regarding cultural resources. For example, the late Clement Meighan, a prominent archeologist and an early critic of NAGPRA, tells of a letter he had written to the chief of California's Resource Management Division of Parks and Recreation, complaining about the neglect of scientific and historical facts in "repatriation" decisions. The director replied: "You have pointed out that many of the decisions in respect to repatriation are not based on valid, scientific principles. We have not claimed they are; the repatriation decision itself is based on political, religious, and ethical issues."
This is a candid statement describing procedures now in force on both the state and federal level. This policy has also created a new industry employing, at tax-payer expense, an army of cultural commissars and cultural resource managers who monitor excavations, censor reports, prevent the publication of photographs and data they find "objectionable," take possession of evidence, and sometimes impose bizarre and capricious conditions on scientific enterprises. For example, in the excavation of a 2,000-year-old Adena mound to make room for a highway in West Virginia, authorities agreed to turn over to activists, within a year, not just cremated human bones but also everything that was of value, for scientific study. This included all the artifacts, pollen samples, food refuse, and chipping waste. The tribal monitors also demanded that no remains or artifacts be touched by menstruating women and that all human remains be covered with red flannel until they could be reburied.
Some institutions have rushed to divest themselves of their collections before anyone can cause them trouble. Among the first were the Smithsonian Institution, Stanford University, and the Universities of Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota, who gave away their collections even before NAGPRA was enacted. A strong dose of political correctness is involved in such action, but so too is bureaucratic expediency. In other words, archaeology simply isn't worth the hassle.
This new regime of politicized culture threatens to severely restrict the study of America's prehistory. Indeed, according to some scientists, it will eventually close down that branch of scholarship altogether. But that is only part of the story, for the shift away from science and scholarship to ethnic politics and postmodernism seen in public policy has created a de facto redefinition of the missions of our cultural institutions. It is also a part of the refocusing of education in America as seen in changes in the curricula of our schools and universities, where rational thought is de-emphasized and where the rationales of identity politics, white guilt, and minority victimhood are taught.
The politicization of culture also offers bureaucratic government the opportunity to expand; an expansion which magnifies its power and arrogance, encourages it to disregard the rule of law and constricts the freedom of scientific and scholarly inquiry as well as the freedom of individual expression.
Litigation over the bones of Kennewick Man has dragged on since 1996 and promises to drag on even longer. This case, however, is important, for if decided in favor of the plaintiffs some important points of law will be clarified in regard to who owns America's past. More important, though, is that the Kennewick case is the first time that science rational procedures in public policy and thus the public good, have confronted in so direct a manner the narrow interests of ethnic politics, "postmodern" revisionism, and an expanding politicized bureaucracy. It is hoped that this case will also receive a thorough hearing in the court of public opinion, and that the public will finally demand that our current drift towards an increasingly balkanized society be reversed.
Mr. Custred is a professor of anthropology at California State University at Hayward.
(c) 2000 Center for the Study of Popular Culture
In regard to the statements made by University-Hayward professor Glynn Custred:
I find it very infuriating that non-Indian individuals have the audacity to make statements like the one above. Our Native History attests to the fact that the native people originated from this continent. But it seems that because our teachings and beliefs don't align with theirs, they are considered "superstitious","backward", "emotional" and not worth serious investigation. How arrogant can one be to think that only their scientific processes and thoughts are the only ones valid? And to further imply that telling the truth about the atrocities committed by European "settlers" are nothing more than a need for Indian people to feel sorry for themselves and establish white guilt?
Even if there had been another race on this continent, our people wouldn't have "replaced" them by shedding their blood and trying to destroy their culture, so why would the "assertions" of "Indian Victimhood and White Guilt" be any lessened or why would the facts change? The fact is that the majority of the European settlers who stole our lands and lodge a campaign of genocide, were cold-hearted killers and thieves.
Also, why do they insinuate that Europeans may have been the first here? It's pretty sorry excuse to cover up all the atrocities and bloodshed of millions of men, women and children!
The fact that our people wish to protect their rights in their own lands and bring the atrocities committed to light, doesn't sound like a "victim" mentality to me. It sounds more like our people—our new Warriors arising to free themselves from the oppression and lies that has kept them "victims"! The reality is that some of our non-Indian friends feel very threatened by this! Good! Because their ancestors, and even some of them who now walk mother earth, are being exposed for the oppressors and the hypocrites they are to the outside world. This is why they fight so very hard to continue to deny even the most basic rights to our people.
They who perpetuated these crimes—and those who continue to do so through their words and deeds—should feel guilty! What does that tell you about a people's character when they attribute the suffering and bloodshed of Native people to nothing more than a "present system of incentive and rewards"?
This is guilt that needs to be owned and addressed by the US government—and by so-called educators and people who continue to show contempt for Native rights—or continual attitudes such as this will continue to permeate US society. If the American people fancy themselves as educated and progressive, then they would be willing to see the truth—and learn from it so it doesn't happen again.
I'd like to see this [person] write these same statements to the Jewish People, who suffered greatly during the European holocaust and say that all the memorials or the education about the holocaust are nothing more than to assert "Jewish victimhood" or that the struggle of our black brothers and sisters is just another excuse to assert "white guilt"?
No matter how you look at it—a spade is a spade!
Am so embarrassed to tell folks I attend Cal State Hayward. And Glynn Custred is the reason. Keep in mind this is the man who brought us the anti-affirmative action legislation in California: Prop. 209. He wrote it—then hired a Black idiot front man from UC Berkeley to travel around the country and promote it. Custred and I have entered into some very heated debates. His classes always have a racist, ethnocentric slant.
The first time I heard him lecture about Columbus discovering America and Europeans were the first people on this continent, I just laughed out loud in class. I couldn't believe that someone was teaching such nonsense. He teaches all of this to a classroom full of 17-year-olds who take for granted that he is telling them the truth. I am twice their age and not having it!
he last time we argued was when I busted up laughing in his class. He approached me after class and asked me if I had a problem with what he was saying. I said, "Yes, I have a big problem with it. How can anyone have 'discovered America' if there were people already here. And how can you say that Europeans were the first ones on the continent? What do you base this statement on?" He replied that he had read reports from the man who examined The Ancient One and this man had come to the conclusion that the skull had European features. I replied that it doesn't matter what this guy says since this is only one interpretation plus, there is an even older skull that was found in Brazil which has been reported to have African and so called Paleo-Indian features. He discounted this because he said he talked to some one who says it has European features! I then told him that he was picking and choosing analyses and data based on a biased view. If he is going to teach the things that he teaches, he also needs to give other views also and let the students use their own judgment.
At this point, he leaned over to me and shouted, "I know YOU PEOPLE (!) and you people have a political agenda, I don't have a political agenda." I responded that I had never written a piece of legislation in my life and I am more interested in truth than poli-tricks.
Hopefully this man represents the end of an era in anthropology. This opportunistic Eurocentric, racist, ethnocentric view of the world will hopefully be on the way out when he retires—which I hope will be soon.
Now that a couple Native people have shown Custred to be a racist, I'll toss a few more barbs his way:
>> [O]ne wag said, Kennewick Man, with an arrowhead embedded in his pelvis, was a case of cowboys and Indians where the Indians won.
Indian activists weren't amused, for the present system of incentives and rewards in which they operate depends on the constant assertion of Indian victimhood and white guilt. <<
The "present system of incentives" is called the Constitution, under which the US government signed treaties with sovereign Indian nations. What Indian activists are generally demanding is that the government uphold the treaties it's signed and the laws it's passed.
>> Such assertions would not be helped if it turned out that Indians weren't the first Americans after all; that Europeans may have been here before them; or that Indians, like the Europeans who followed, may have come to America as colonizers to find a racially different aboriginal population, which they eventually replaced. For them it is better that as little as possible be known about Kennewick Man, or about any other ancient skeletal material for that matter. <<
First, the claim that Kennewick Man is Caucasian is unproven. There's no science to justify it other than the imaginative reconstruction of KM's face. Second, even if KM somehow proved to be Caucasian, it wouldn't change the facts—that Native people possessed the continent when Europeans invaded it—in the slightest. Third, what Natives want is to have their ancestor buried with respect, same as anyone would want.
Would Custred agree to dig up Arlington National Cemetery for scientific purposes? Maybe exhume a few of the Unknown Soldiers and send various bits and pieces to labs to be ground up and tested? Why not, if he believes in "rational" science? What's more rational than treating dead bodies like random mineral deposits?
The principle is exactly the same. Native people generally hold all burials as sacred as we hold the "special" ones in Arlington. They also hold ancestors who are hundreds or thousands of years old as sacred as we might hold our parents or grandparents. So unless Custred is willing to plop his mother's bones into an acid bath for chemical analysis, his argument fails.
>> One of the problems with NAGPRA is that it draws no line beyond which cultural material can be claimed by a living community. Since no community can be traced back earlier than five to six hundred years, ancient remains like Kennewick Man presumably fall outside the provisions of the law. <<
Custred presumes incorrectly. As one counterexample, the Hopi Tribe can trace its direct history 800 years, and its Puebloan ancestors (e.g., the Basketmaker cultures) to before the birth of Christ. Custred's assertion is flatly false.
Read Vine Deloria's Red Earth, White Lies for more deconstruction of scientific "rationality" and more evidence of Indian cultural continuity.
Who controls the past?
>> The race of Kennewick Man, however, is not the only issue. Of more importance to the activists is control of all cultural material pertaining to native population, in an effort to establish their exclusive ownership of the past. <<
The ownership of their past, you mean. With a couple of minor exceptions, Euro-Americans don't have a past on this continent before 1492. Before then, the past belongs overwhelming to the people whose past it is.
>> Litigation over Kennewick Man, begun in October 1996 and still in the courts, has been a long, wearisome process of bureaucratic stalling and obstruction, of contradictions and secrecy, of double talk and obfuscation, of bureaucratic arrogance and violations of the law, and eventually the destruction of archaeological evidence. While scientists were denied any access to the skeleton, Indians came and went as they pleased, purportedly to perform "religious" ceremonies. <<
"Religious" in quotes? Custred is purportedly an intelligent "professor," though it isn't obvious from his biased essay.
>> Some institutions have rushed to divest themselves of their collections before anyone can cause them trouble. Among the first were the Smithsonian Institution, Stanford University, and the Universities of Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota, who gave away their collections even before NAGPRA was enacted. A strong dose of political correctness is involved in such action, but so too is bureaucratic expediency. <<
No, a strong dose of correctness is involved, not "political correctness." "Political correctness" means saying something when you don't really believe it or care. Since Native people do care about their artifacts and remains, the phrase doesn't apply. In fact, the only "political correctness" here is Custred's calling Native beliefs politically correct.
>> But that is only part of the story, for the shift away from science and scholarship to ethnic politics and postmodernism seen in public policy has created a de facto redefinition of the missions of our cultural institutions. It is also a part of the refocusing of education in America as seen in changes in the curricula of our schools and universities, where rational thought is de-emphasized and where the rationales of identity politics, white guilt, and minority victimhood are taught. <<
Custred may be deemphasizing his own rational thought, judging from this essay. The liberals and activists who are challenging his irrational thoughts aren't deemphasizing theirs.
Custred's statement is such an irrational joke that I won't bother to refute it. Try reading James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me to learn how irrationally schools have taught American history and how rationality demands that we update the lessons.
>> More important, though, is that the Kennewick case is the first time that science rational procedures in public policy and thus the public good, have confronted in so direct a manner the narrow interests of ethnic politics, "postmodern" revisionism, and an expanding politicized bureaucracy. It is hoped that this case will also receive a thorough hearing in the court of public opinion, and that the public will finally demand that our current drift towards an increasingly balkanized society be reversed. <<
Another stupid, unsubstantiated statement masquerading as fact. For one denunciation of the asinine balkanization claim, see Outside the So-Called Ethnic Box.
Another lying white man
Custred is either ignorantly or malciously misstating the facts about Kennewick Man. That makes him the only irrational one in this debate. To prove the point, here are some excerpts from a review of the origin of people in the Americas:
US News and World Report
Cover Story 10/12/98
The New World may be 20,000 years older than experts thought
BY CHARLES W. PETIT
The peopling of Europe and Asia was an expansion featuring multiple migrations and an ebb and flow of cultures that, it now appears, may have washed into the Americas in a series of waves starting well before Clovis times, perhaps as early as 30,000 years ago.
When [Kennewick Man's] bones were found, the Benton County coroner asked James Chatters, a local forensic anthropologist, to examine what looked like a possible homicide victim. Chatters thought the bones were older than that, but he thought they might belong to a 19th-century settler. Then Chatters made what he now says was a big mistake: He labeled some of the man's facial features "Caucasoid," based on the fact that the narrow face, long head, and jutting chin were not an Indian's typically broad face, prominent cheekbones, and round head.
Some people of European ancestry claimed Kennewick Man as a long-lost brother, even though the "Caucasoid" label now looks wrong. Instead, Chatters and physical anthropologists say, Kennewick Man looks more Asian than anything—a bit like the ancient Ainu people of Japan. These bones argue that the people who lived in the New World 9,000 years ago were more physically varied than today's Indians.
Together, these statements put the lie to the claim that the first Americans may have been Caucasians. Since some 20,000 years of Americans preceded Kennewick Man, his race is irrelevant, although there's every likelihood he was a paleo-Indian. These statements also put the lie to the claim that the fight over Kennewick Man is about political correctness. It's really about correctness, period—as in, "Stop telling falsehoods about KM's origin and give his bones back to his own people."
Kennewick Man, Captain Picard, and political correctness
Indians as welfare recipients
. . .
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