After eight years of bitter controversy, the ultimate fate of the ancient hunter known as Kennewick Man may hinge on a quiet attempt by outgoing Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell to change "is" to "is, or was."
Campbell (R-Colo.) is sponsoring a bill innocuously titled "Native Americans Technical Corrections Act of 2004," which proposes in Section 14 to amend the definition of Native American in a 1990 law requiring the repatriation of remains to modern indigenous tribes.
Instead of defining Native American as "of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States," the law would read "is, or was indigenous to the United States."
Scientists intent on studying the Kennewick remains say the bill, if passed, would effectively overturn an appeals court ruling allowing their research to go forward and instead cede control of the bones to a coalition of four northwestern tribes that want to rebury them.
The dispute has raged ever since the Kennewick discovery in Washington state in 1996 and has provoked fallings-out not only between the litigating scholars and the indigenous people they study, but also among scholars themselves. And Campbell's one-word amendment to the Native American Graves and Protection Act has now dropped Congress squarely in the middle of the controversy.
"There's so much at stake," said National Museum of Natural History anthropologist Doug Owsley, one of the eight internationally known scientists seeking access to the remains. "It is unfortunate that they're trying to slip this in under disguise. It should be done in open discussion."
Campbell's office says the bill's passage -- which could occur by voice vote during Congress's lame-duck session -- does not necessarily mean that the Kennewick remains will be off-limits, only that Native American remains and artifacts may be linked to tribes or clans that no longer exist.
For the Kennewick bones to be handed over for reburial, Campbell's office says, the four tribes still must show not only that Kennewick Man "is, or was" Native American, but also that he has a "cultural affiliation" to the modern-day tribes seeking his remains.
"Proving that would be a much higher threshold," said University of North Carolina archaeologist Vin Steponaitis, a spokesman for the Society for American Archaeology. The society supports the "substance" of the legislation, but is opposed to its enactment "without a full and open hearing."
For the Native American tribes, the Campbell amendment, as well as the original 1990 law, has a purpose that goes beyond Kennewick: to give indigenous people the first voice in how ancestral remains will be treated.
"We're not opposed to science -- we're not Luddites," said Audie Huber, acting natural resources director for the Umatilla Tribes and spokesman for the Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce and Colville tribes, who seek control of the Kennewick remains.
"The authority over the graves of the ancestors has to end up in someone's hands," Huber said. "The problem is that the tribes have always been the ones that have been forced to compromise."
Kennewick Man is the name given to the nearly complete 9,300-year-old skull and skeleton found by college students on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., during a speedboat race.
The remains, of a middle-aged man about 5 feet 9 inches tall, provoked astonishment and intense curiosity virtually from the moment of discovery, for the long skull with the beaked nose did not resemble those of modern Native Americans.
This earned Kennewick Man a spotlight in the most vigorous debate in American anthropology: Who were the first Americans?
For years scholars held that the Americas were peopled by a single wave of migrants coming across the Bering Strait over a land bridge from Asia about 11,200 years ago. This view is epitomized by the elegantly crafted, fluted arrowheads found in Clovis, N.M., in the 1930s.
But the discovery of apparently much older sites, as well as of unusual human remains such as those of Kennewick Man, have led to a partial revolution against the Clovis model and a reevaluation of other theories.
The Army Corps of Engineers had original custody of the Kennewick remains and decided to give them to the tribes for reburial, prompting the eight scholars to file their lawsuit. The skeleton is stored at Seattle's Burke Museum.
In 2002, a U.S. magistrate ruled in favor of the scholars, and in February of this year, that ruling was confirmed on appeal by a three-judge panel that said the tribes had failed to show that the remains were Native American because they were not connected to any existing tribe.
Campbell, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, filed his amendment after a July hearing in which he decided that repatriation of Indian remains should also occur if they could be traced to a once-viable tribe that had died out.