Bones of contention

                   Kennewick Man should be open to scientific examination


                   Oct. 15, 2004 12:00 AM


                   Science earned its reputation for being insensitive to the beliefs of indigenous  cultures. Mummies were put under glass and burial paraphernalia were dissected, cataloged and stored with no regard for the beliefs of the person these items were supposed to accompany to the next world.


                   But this time, the folks in the lab coats are right.


                   For eight years, scientists and Indian tribes fought over Kennewick Man.


                   The 9,200-year-old Kennewick skeleton represents a treasure trove of  knowledge. Only about two dozen skeletons older than 8,000 years have ever been found in the Americas. Testing, which could destroy the bones, could also unlock secrets.


                   Yet four Northwestern tribes claimed the skeleton under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.


                   That law was a decent and overdue recognition that Native America tribes should have first claim to their ancestors' skeletal remains and burials.


                   But in this case of Kennewick Man, none of the tribes could show a direct link to this ancient human. That was the reason the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave for denying the tribes' claim.


                   The ruling gives knowledge a chance. The tribes wanted the bones reburied without any scientific tests done.


                   Now, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., is proposing an amendment to expand the Indian grave-protection law so it can be applied to any skeletal remains no matter how old or disconnected from modern tribes.


                   The argument by Rob Roy Smith, attorney for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, that "something that is indigenous . . . cannot lose indigenousness over time" may be technically correct.


                   But the law was designed to honor spiritual beliefs about how ancestral remains should be handled. Those beliefs vary from tribe to tribe. It honors no one to if such beliefs are generalized and extended so far into prehistory that information about the origins of the human race goes unexamined.


                   This nation and the world lost a great deal of knowledge because of how the beliefs and customs of indigenous people were routinely denigrated and frequently obliterated.


                   Efforts to right that wrong by protecting ancestral burials are necessary. But reason is also necessary. Scientists should not be prevented from studying bones that represent the prehistory of the human race.


The Arizona Republic--Opinions