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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Summary of a recently aired TV show:

Numb3rs: Bones of Contention

Posted Dec 10, 2005, 3:53 PM ET by Jonathan Toomey
Filed under: Drama, OpEd, CBS, Numb3rs

18 million Native Americans, 1492. 350,000 Native Americans, 1900. 206 human bones. Two truths. Now based on those four facts which flash by as the episodes starts, you'd expect this to be a politically charged story and it was. Who knew that archeology could impact so many things... well, hopefully everyone does at this point. A skull is found at the construction site for a new high school and the truth behind this antiquity has the potential to destroy the history of an entire nation. Or at least shut down a casino.

The skull in question has already gotten a woman killed. A young female museum research tech was examining the skull late at night, when an unknown assailant killed her and stole the artifact. Because the museum is on federal lease, Don and his team were called in. But where was Colby? I know he's not a full member of the cast, but he's still been a pretty big part of every episode up until now. Anyway, a notebook of calculations is found on the body. Using what he knows about carbon dating, Charlie was able to finish what the woman was working on and determines that the stolen skull was somewhere around 10,000 years old. Sounds ridiculous right? Well, if that's true, then it poses some huge problems to the Native American groups in the area -- one of which runs a very profitable casino. This developed into a really interesting debate about history, who has to claim to what, and how that claim is determined.

So if the Native American nation is laying claim to a parcel of land, asserting they were the first ones there, a skull older than their recorded history would suggest otherwise. You'd expect them to want this skull. In charge of the local nation is Chief Clearwater and apparently he got in touch with a security guard at the museum. Why you ask? The nation annually removes people from their list of eligible members (meaning those who get a cut from the casino profits) based on the percentage to which they are still Native American. The security guard was one of those disenrolled people. In return for letting Clearwater into the museum so he could take care of the problem, the security guard would be put back on the list. Sounds kind of sleazy, but that's how far they were willing to go in order to maintain their claim.

A Native replies


I went ahead & made this fast reply to it:

This is a sad case of propaganda and media hype making its way into American popculture. Yes, the "10,000 year old skull" IS loosely based on a real find (the 9,200 yr old Kennewick Man skeleton)...but the premise follows deliberate propaganda by racist hate groups & by politically motivated scientists more than it does reality. No "anomalous" skull would change laws one iota, let alone inspire a coverup by "fearful tribes". Kennewick Man was "claimed" (by a deputy coroner who bumbled the case from day one) to "look White", once he was found to be over 9,000 yrs old this unsupported claim was seized on by white supremacist groups wanting to claim that America was "really a White homeland" & that ancient White firstcomers had been exterminated by Mongoloid invaders (hoping to make the "Conquest of the Americas" seem a tit-for-tat retaking of White territory rather than the genocide it really is) AND by certain archaeologists trying to fan discontent with a piece of federal legislation called the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (which gave federally recognized Native American tribes...rather than the archies...control over "some" Native American skeletons & artifacts found in "part" of the U.S.). SCIENTIFIC STUDY of Kennewick Man proved he was not even vaguely White, that he was NEITHER Caucasian nor even "Caucasoid". He most closely matched Native American, coastal Asian, & Pacific populations. A motley assortment of White racists, neo-pagans, & scientists (politics making odd bedfellows) all pushed the inane conspiracy theory that ancient remains like Kennewick's somehow suggested that Native Americans WEREN'T the first inhabitants of the Americas but that the tribes were covering it up due to fear of losing "special privileges" & that the government was going along because the tribes were "somehow" able to coerce them (old myth of an ant raping an elephant?). In reality, ALL evidence (DNA, dental, craniometric, linguistic, etc.) says that modern Native Americans ARE descendants of the FIRST arrivals in the Americas. It's unknown...but IRRELEVANT...whether these first arrivals were one people or several peoples who blended together to make Native Americas. So called Native American "privilege" is just normal U.S. citizens' rights PLUS in some cases "Treaty Rights" extended "some but not all" enrolled members of some U.S. tribes....Treaty Rights are legal rights the tribes got guaranteed in exchange for giving land to the U.S. SOME (Federally recognized, "Sovereign Nation") Native American tribal GOVTS have "special" rights (re taxation, self rule, etc.), but these are merely comparable to what govts of States & U.S. Trust territories like Puerto Rico enjoy. "Indians" don't fear any truth behind ancient skeletons, at most they fear White racism & the effects of a hyped up media frenzy.

Rob's reply
Wade Wofford has accurately summarized the scientific and political problems with this episode of Numb3rs. Thanks, Wade. Now let's take a deeper look at the show:

The episode is indeed a takeoff on the recent Kennewick Man controversy. A researcher is murdered and a skull stolen. As the story unfolds, we learn a tribe has protested scientific examinations of the skull.

Why? According to the show, it's because the skull might prove the tribe wasn't the first in the area. It might "bring into question the validity of their claims: to the land, to being the first inhabitants."

Here's the first problem with the show. It denies that the tribe might have a sincere reason for wanting the skull buried without being examined. In fact, tribes have used NAGPRA to retrieve and bury human remains to uphold their religious beliefs. Like almost every culture around the world, they believe in letting their grandmothers and grandfathers rest in peace—not in digging them up and picking them apart.

The show doesn't even mention this religious reason, much less offer it as a valid alternative. Instead, it portrays the tribe as concerned only with protecting its rights and privileges. The Indians' alleged motive is selfish rather than selfless (helping the spirits of their ancestors).

If the show limited the "rights" issue to land rights, that would be one thing—an erroneous but legitimate example of self-interest. Instead, it implies the Indians are trying to protect their casino rights. In other words, it implies the Indians are greedy—concerned only with maintaining their wealth and income.

Judging by the clues in the show, the fictional Weonna (sp?) Nation is located in the greater Los Angeles area. The skull was found further east—perhaps in the Inland Empire or high desert. In any case, the California setting introduces more problems.

The skull is supposedly 10,000 years old, which makes it "the oldest remains in this area," according to the show. Wrong. Scientists have found remains in California and Mexico that they think are 13,000 years old. As we'll see, this demolishes a key claim of the show.

A computer reconstruction of the skull makes the person look "European." This again is a takeoff on the Kennewick Man controversy, and it's no more valid here. Scientists have discredited the "Captain Picard" reconstruction (see photo above), which was only one researcher's fanciful work.

As with the Picard reconstruction, the reconstructed person on Numbe3s looks indeterminate to me, not European. He could come from almost any ethnic group. The show worsens the identification by making his computer-genereated skin color light. In reality, it's impossible to determine someone's skin color from his remains.

The show presumes the skull is "European." Why exactly is this a problem for the Indians? According to the show, it means a European was in California 1,000 years before the Indians' creation myth says they arrived. The skull supposedly disproves the creation story. As someone says, "This skull could destroy the tribe."

As with similar arguments in the Kennewick case, this is ridiculous. First, no Indian creation myth is set in a specific time. They all happen in the indeterminate past. Later, the chief even says the Indians appeared "at the beginning of time," which flatly contradicts the investigator's claim.

In short, physical remains can't predate a Native creation story.

Furthermore, the artifacts found so far are potentially the tip of the iceberg. Scattered remains across the Americas suggest people may have come here tens of thousands of years ago. And their dispersion across the continent took time. If they reached South America 15,000 or 20,000 years ago, for instance, they presumably passed through California much earlier.

Finally, what if Numb3rs Man were a genuine European? One person doesn't prove anything. He could've been a lone traveler whose boat got blown across the Atlantic.

One person doesn't get to claim or own a continent for himself. Unless scientists locate several villages—i.e., a whole European culture—beneath the Native California culture, the Indians' claims are safe.

And even if scientists found such a culture, they'd have to prove that some people today are descended from the ancient Euro-Americans. And that they've maintained a legitimate presence on, or a link to, the land. Fuhgeddaboutit. None of these things are going to happen.

The mind-boggling murder scenario
The story takes a turn when it's revealed that the mother of the security guard, Lopez, was disenrolled from the tribe. Again, the show puts the most negative spin on this occurrence. People are disenrolled even though DNA tests might prove their membership, the show claims. They're disenrolled so the remaining members can increase their share of the profits, it implies.

This is a typically biased view of the disenrollment issue. Yes, some expulsions may be about money, but others are based on longstanding family disputes that predate Indian gaming by decades. Moreover, a tribe could legitimately expel people with genuine "blood" if these people disobeyed the tribe's laws or renounced their tribal membership.

[Spoiler alert]

It turns out that Chief Clearwater killed the researcher and took the skull. (Let's ignore the name "Clearwater," which would be more appropriate to a tribe in Oklahoma than in California.) Why? Because the casino has divided the tribe, the chief claims. Because it has caused people to become greedy and turn against their fellow tribal members. If Clearwater has the supposedly European skull, he can blackmail the tribe into doing the right thing.

If the tribe doesn't straighten out, he'll reveal the skull, expose the tribe's true history, and overturn its longstanding sovereign rights. That essentially will destroy the tribe, but better no casino or land than a corrupt and immoral existence, I guess.

This scenario is wrong on many levels. First, the chief wears an expensive suit, works in an expensive office, and lives in an expensive house. Clearly, he has benefited immensely from the casino.

The chief is an elected representative of the tribe. So what's his official position? If he's anti-casino, how did he get elected to run the tribe and the casino? Why is he taking the casino's money along with everyone else? Why doesn't he resign from office if he's so opposed to gaming?

If he wants to change things, what's stopping him? He implies it's people like Morris, his lawyer assistant. But the chief is usually the most powerful person in a tribe. If he can't rectify the problem, who can?

At best, Chief Clearwater has had a major change of heart since he was elected. At worse, he ran for office under false pretenses. In either case, he can state his position publicly and demand a revised policy. If he can't get results that way, he can resign from office.

Or if he thinks he can do more in office, he can put his position to a vote when he's up for reelection. His platform can be to cut back the casino, re-enroll the disenrolled members, and restore tribal unity.

If he wins with that agenda, more power to him. If he loses, too bad...but that's the nature of democracy. The will of the people prevails.

But he doesn't take either approach. Instead, he commits murder to get his way. This murder is so far from the "perfect crime" it's laughable. It's about the most imperfect crime imaginable.

The chief chased the researcher through the museum before clobbering her. What if she got away? Managed to signal for help? Wounded him in the fight (the chief, as played by Graham Greene, is 60-ish and not a big man)? Dropped the skull and broke it?

Did Clearwater seriously think the guard's tribal ancestry wouldn't come to light? Or that the guard would go to jail for aiding and abetting a murder to protect him? Why didn't the chief wait till the researcher got to the parking lot and kill her there? Then it wouldn't have pointed such a huge finger at tribal politics as the motive.

What if the tests, which no one has conducted yet, prove the skull wasn't European after all? Oops. Clearwater has committed murder for nothing.

Is the chief's scheme—murder and blackmail—really the best way to instill traditional values in his tribe? Probably not. Should the richest man in the tribe be railing against the corrupting influence of money? Probably not. The Numb3rs scenario fails in so many ways it isn't funny.

Related links
The facts about Indian gaming
TV shows featuring Indians

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