In 1996, a Washington college student trying to sneak into a hydroplane race on the Columbia River — and drinking a Busch Light — stumbled upon one of the most ancient, most complete skeletons ever discovered. Last month, genomics experts announced in Nature that the 8,500-year-old skeleton — known among scientists as the Kennewick man — is most closely related to today’s Native Americans.
To the local tribes in Washington State, the new addition to the family tree came as no surprise. Since the remains were discovered, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have claimed that the Kennewick Man, whom they call the Ancient One, is their ancestor. The Ancient One’s skeleton, they argue, should be returned to them for reburial, in accordance with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Other scientists disagreed. Some speculated that there aren’t sufficiently local genetic samples to link the Ancient One to living tribes. In 2004, a judge ruled that the Ancient One failed NAGPRA’s cultural affiliation requirement: A “shared group identity” must be traced from skeleton to present-day members of the tribe though geography, kinship, language, folklore, and more.
It’s hard to prove one’s cultural affiliation with a 9,000-year-old skeleton. But proving one’s genetic affiliation has its own complications. New research methods appear to provide the evidence necessary to validate Native-Americans’ ancestry. But by using science to legitimize their claims, Native Americans risk ceding control of their tribal identity to research institutions and their interests.
And indigenous people have good reasons not to trust them. Mainstream science’s treatment of Native-Americans’ DNA is troubled and sometimes exploitative. It clashes with indigenous conceptions of identity and it echoes science’s long history of using the remains of people of color to prop up the notion that race is biological, reinforcing its oppressive function.
As a result, the longstanding tension between scientists and indigenous people came to a new and subtle head in the fight for the Kennewick Man. The Colville Tribe’s jurisdiction may be challenged by scientists, or NAGPRA regulators will rule in the tribe’s favor. In any case: The power of white people and white entities to delineate and police Native-American identity will continue unabated.