Kennewick Man: Science and Sacred Rights (2024)

Content Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.


Note: This lesson plan explores issues that may touch uncomfortably on some students' personal belief systems. Educators are advised to review the lesson and preview the recommended study materials to determine whether they are appropriate for class discussion.

The controversy surrounding Kennewick Man provides an opportunity to present a case study in the sometimes troubled relationship between science and religion. Begin by gathering documents that reflect the competing perspectives in this controversy, using the resources available through EDSITEment. For example:

  • An essay by James Chatters,—“Meet Kennewick Man”, from the PBS website and documentary, “Mystery of the First Americans,” a link available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Arctic Studies Center.
  • "A Battle Over Bones"—an article by Andrew Slayman, published in Archaeology magazine (January/February 1997), which provides a detailed account of the controversy, including background on NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, under which a group of Northwestern tribes claimed the right to rebury the Kennewick Man remains, and an outline of the legal arguments advanced by archeologists who wished to claim Kennewick Man for science. Available throughEDSITEment at the ArchNet website. (At the website's homepage, click on "Journals & Publishers," then click "Electronic Journals," and under the heading "Archaeology Magazine," click "Web Page." Scroll down and click "Back Issues," then select "January/February 1997" and click "A Battle Over Bones" in the table of contents.)
  • "Human Remains Should Be Reburied"—a statement by Armand Minthorn, a leader of the Umatilla tribes, which took the lead in Native American efforts to gain custody of the Kennewick Man remains. Writing in September 1996, Minthorn explains the tribe's legal position, articulates its religious beliefs, and challenges scientific arguments that Kennewick Man should be subjected to further study. Available through EDSITEment at the NativeWebwebsite. (At the website's homepage, click on "Resource Center," then select "Nations Index" in the navigation listing at the left. Scroll down and click on "Umatilla," then select "Issues, Policy Statements and Fact Sheets" and click on "Human Remains Should Be Reburied.")
  • Claims for the Remains—with links to online essays by scientists explaining the significance of the Kennewick Man discovery within the context of new archeological evidence that suggests European peoples may have been among the earliest inhabitants of North America. These essays also address Native American concerns about the scientific study of ancient human remains and comments on the relationship between religion and science. Available at the PBS documentary website, "Mystery of the First Americans" (At the website's homepage, click on "Claims for the Remains," and click on links to essays by eight scientists.)
  • "Kennewick Update"—a newsbrief published in Archaeology magazine (November/December 1998) which reports the decision by the National Park Service to conduct further studies of Kennewick Man in order to determine if the remains are Native American and therefore subject to NAGPRA. Available throughEDSITEmentat the ArchNet website. (At the website's homepage, click on "Journals & Publishers," then click "Electronic Journals," and under the heading "Archaeology Magazine," click "Web Page." Scroll down and click "Back Issues," then select "November/December 1998" and click "Newsbriefs" in the table of contents, then scroll down to "Kennewick Update.")
  • A full text of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Lesson Activities

Activity 1:The Facts of the Case

Have students review these documents and work in study teams to outline the facts of the case. To prepare for this exercise, guide the class through a sample review of one document, highlighting important points of the argument. Have a representative of each team present the group's summary of one phase of the case. You may wish to use the summary below as a supplement to students' presentations.

  • Discovery: Kennewick Man was discovered by accident in July 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. James Chatters, the archeologist who first studied the nearly complete skeleton, assumed that it was the remains of an early pioneer, based on Caucasian features of the skull and bone structure. He noticed, however, a stone projectile point (arrow or spear head) lodged in the pelvic bone that is of a type usually identified as from 8,500 to 4,500 years old. To determine the age of the skeleton, he had radiocarbon tests performed, which revealed that it is approximately 8,400 years old. Kennewick Man, in other words, comes from the time of North America's earliest inhabitants and his physical traits suggest that non-Indian peoples may have been among the first settlers here.
  • Native American Claims: When it was learned that Kennewick Man pre-dates the arrival of Europeans in the New World, the skeleton became subject to the requirements of NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This federal law is designed in part to restore to Native Americans the ancestral remains and associated sacred objects that have been collected as scientific specimens over the decades and put on display in museums across the United States. The law also allows Native Americans to claim newly discovered remains of indigenous peoples, assigning control over the remains to an individual or tribe based on evidence of a biological, geographical, or cultural affiliation. Under this latter provision, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which had jurisdiction in this case because Kennewick Man was discovered in a navigable waterway) suspended any further scientific study of the skeleton and notified tribes with ancestral homelands in the area where it was found. A consortium of five Native American groups, led by the Umatilla tribes, claimed a geographical and cultural affiliation with Kennewick Man, based on the age and location of the skeleton, and announced their intention to rebury him.
  • Archeological Objections: Alarmed that they would lose the opportunity to study Kennewick Man further, archeologists filed suit against the Corps of Engineers to block the transfer of the skeleton to the tribes. The scientists argued that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate a cultural affiliation between Kennewick Man and these tribes, and that, based on the skeleton's physical characteristics, there is no biological affiliation between Kennewick Man and any modern tribe. They also claimed a right to study the skeleton under a provision of NAGPRA that permits scientific research that will be "of major benefit to the United States," and charged that denying their claim to the skeleton "because they're not Native Americans" would be a violation of their civil rights. Although not a party to this lawsuit, the Umatilla tribes argued that NAGPRA entitled them to claim the Kennewick Man remains based on geographical affiliation, and that their religious beliefs required that the remains be quickly and respectfully reburied. In addition, they denied the scientists' theories about Kennewick Man, explaining that, according to their oral histories, Indian people have always lived in North America but have not always looked the way they do today. Faced with this impasse, the court and Corps of Engineers deferred a final decision in the case for more than two years.
  • Resolution: Reports about Kennewick Man stirred widespread public interest in the controversy until, in late 1998, the National Park Service, which administers NAGPRA, finally agreed to conduct tests to determine if the skeleton is Native American as defined under the law, and if so whether it is affiliated to any modern tribe. After first raising objections, the archeologists who had sued for permission to study Kennewick Man eventually accepted the National Park Service plan. The Umatilla tribes, who felt that their position had been misrepresented in the press and who still felt a religious obligation to rebury the Kennewick Man remains, regretted but did not resist the decision.

Activity 2:The Native American Point of View

Against this background, have students analyze the Native American point of view in the Kennewick Man controversy, as expressed in the Umatilla position paper, "Human Remains Should Be Reburied."

  • As students discuss this document, encourage them to recognize that the Umatilla speak for a comprehensive and time-tested world view which is rooted in cultural tradition and in the historical struggle to preserve their traditions against the pressures of a dominant culture.
  • Have students identify evidence of this struggle in the Umatilla position paper. Note, for example, the emphasis on law and other sources of social authority—the ties of homeland, treaty rights, religious doctrines, cultural traditions, tribal policies and procedures, federal statutes, oral history. Why do the Umatilla substantiate their rights in this way? What sources of authority could archeologists cite? What gives archeologists the right to claim Kennewick Man for study? On the other hand, how does the history of legal disputes between Indians and non-Indians reflect on this case? Have laws protected Indian rights in the past when non-Indians have sought "to bend the laws to fit their desires," as the Umatilla spokesman puts it?
  • In addition to the history of relationships between Indians and non-Indians, there is a special history of antagonism between Indians and scientists. Inform students that because scientists at one time regarded Native Americans as "a vanishing race," they were especially aggressive in collecting and preserving Native American skeletal remains. Until recently, for example, Native American remains made up more than 60 percent of the Smithsonian Institution's skeletal remains collection, a number far out of proportion to the percentage of Native Americans in the world population. Where does the Umatilla position paper allude to this history of aggressive scientific study? How does this legacy bear on the case from the Umatilla point of view?
  • Setting the historical context aside, focus next on the Umatilla's direct arguments against the need for further research, where they oppose cultural traditions to science. Instead of an ancient immigrant, they see Kennewick Man as an ancestor, because tradition says that Indians have lived in North America from the beginning of time. Instead of a Caucasian, they see him as one of their own, since tradition says that Indian people have not always looked the way they do today. Instead of a clue that can unlock the past, they see him as part of their past, a confirmation of their past, and feel an obligation to respect the link between them. Have students respond to this clash between Native American and scientific viewpoints.

Activity 3:The Scientific Point of View

Now turn to the scientific point of view in the Kennewick Man controversy, as expressed in the "Claims for the Remains", available at the PBS documentary website, "Mystery of the First Americans" with links to essays by eight scientists.

  • Remind students that this article is not a response to the Umatilla position paper, but it does indicate why archeologists consider study of Kennewick Man so critically important. Have students explain the theory presented here. What is meant by the "maritime revolution"? How does evidence that ancient peoples could travel significant distances by water extend the period during which people first came to North America? How does it expand their possible routes of migration? How would DNA testing of ancient remains shed light on the theory of multiple ocean-going migrations? What would a genetic link between Kennewick Man and ancient peoples in Europe prove about the earliest inhabitants of North America?
  • In addition to explaining why study of Kennewick Man is important to scientists, the article indicates that there is "wide popular interest" in solving the mysteries of ancient North America and that science stands "in the vanguard of the popular will" when it seeks answers to such mysteries. Have students consider how this claim of popular support for science might bear on the dispute. Should the majority rule in a question of religious rights? Is there a public "right to know" that outweighs considerations of respect for the dead? To what extent, from a Native American point of view, might this line of argument be understood as a variation on "might makes right"?
  • The article explores the relationship between science and religion most directly when it describes the study of human remains as "an echo" of traditional rituals of respect for the dead. What is the basis for this analogy? What kind of meaning do scientists see in human remains? What kind of significance do human remains have for traditional cultures? Later the article extends this analogy by claiming that archeologists have inherited from priests and shamans the role of answering questions about the origins of human culture. What does this evolutionary view imply about the role of religion in today's world? What value does it ascribe to religious traditions? How does it compare to the Umatilla faith in truths handed down from the past? What is at risk for Native Americans when such truths are contradicted by scientific fact?


Conclude this lesson by considering the outcome of the Kennewick Man controversy.Was the outcome fair? Remind students that NAGPRA requires evidence of affiliation before a claim of human remains can be approved. In practice, this evidence must meet scientific standards, and by those standards the evidence of Kennewick Man's affiliation to the Umatilla is at least uncertain and contradictory. Have students, however, form their own judgment of the case. Do they see any strategy for reaching a compromise between the claims of religion and those of science? As an exercise in conflict resolution, divide the class into negotiating teams for both sides in this controversy and have a discussion aimed at finding a way out of this impasse and at framing a policy for avoiding such conflict in the future.

Lesson Extensions

Archeologists and other scientists whose work involves native peoples have made cooperation—not confrontation—their goal in research. For examples of such cooperation in action, see the "Yup'ik Masks" exhibit at the Arctic Studies Center website, as well as research reports on "DNA and the Peopling of Siberia" and on the recovery of the body of an Alaskan native girl who died more than 700 years ago ("Dear Young Girl"). This website also provides access to the ethical guidelines developed for research among native peoples. (At the website's homepage, click on "Yup'ik Masks" for the exhibit. To access the research reports, click on "Arctic Social Sciences" in the righthand margin of the homepage, then select "DNA and the Peopling of Siberia," or "Dear Young Girl," or "Ethics.") To explore religious rights in another context, visit the "Oyez Religion" in the scroll box. Scroll down to find "Lyng v. Northwest Indian CPA [1987]." )

Kennewick Man: Science and Sacred Rights (2024)
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