In 1996 a 9,300-year-old skeleton was unearthed along the banks of the Columbia River and later named Kennewick Man in honor of the city in which it was discovered. Kennewick Man, which remains one of the oldest skeletons found in North America, sparked a heated controversy and lengthy court battle about how to deal with ancient remains found on public lands.
This month while at the Kennewick Man exhibit at the East Benton County Historical Museum I announced a new bill I authored that protects the opportunity for the scientific study of ancient remains while respecting tribal rights. My proposal makes it clear that ancient remains with no connection to present day Native Americans should be available for scientific study and not automatically turned over to the tribes.
The Native American Graves Protection Act (NAGPRA) is the primary federal law governing the disposition of human remains found on public lands. NAGPRA rightly seeks to turn over human remains to the present day Native American tribes that they are affiliated with - and that would continue under my proposal. However, the wording of the NAGPRA is vague on the subject of very ancient remains of unknown origin and was never meant to apply to remains as old as Kennewick Man.
In 1996, federal agencies tried to block scientific study of Kennewick Man and dispose of the bones as quickly as possible. Eventually, the fate of Kennewick Man was tied up in court as scientists sought to study the ancient remains. In 2004 a Ninth Circuit Court ruling cleared the way for Kennewick Man to be studied.
However, I'm concerned that future actions by federal agencies, Congress or the courts could jeopardize the opportunity to study Kennewick Man and other ancient remains that are unrelated to any present day Indian tribe. The simple fact that it took nearly a decade to reach a decision about the fate of Kennewick Man is proof that the law needs clarification.
My new bill counters ongoing attempts in the Senate that would effectively reverse the Ninth Circuit Court decision, protects against future misinterpretation of the law and prevents other ancient remains from getting tied up in lengthy legal battles. It protects the rights of present day Native Americans to claim the remains of their ancestors - yet reiterates that in cases of truly ancient remains Congress does not intend to block scientific study.
My bill ensures that the study of Kennewick Man and others like him will continue to advance our scientific understanding of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas.
Congressman Doc Hastings (R-Pasco) represents Central Washington's Fourth Congressional District.