This Week: The Body in Question
Hosted by Steve Coll
Washington Post Managing Editor
Monday, June 4, 2001; 11 a.m. EDT
The discovery of the remains of a 9,000-year-old man on the Columbia River in Kennewick, Wash., set off an emotional legal conflict over race, history and identity that isn't just about the American past, but about the future as well.
Steve Coll, whose cover story "Who Was He?" appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, June 4 at 11 a.m. EDT to field questions and comments about the article.
Coll is the managing editor of The Washington Post.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Mr. Coll: One of the many problems posed by the "who controls the skeleton" is -- is there any "time limit?" Suppose a skeleton is found in Oregon and tests are made showing the skeleton is 30,000 years old. It would be a vitally important historical discovery -- which scientists might be kept from studying if a local Native American tribe claims the skeleton is one of its ancestors.
Steve Coll: Your observation lies at the center of this dispute. The law at the center of this case, the Native American Graves Protection Act, or NAGPRA, provides American Indian tribes with extensive rights over human remains that are "culturally affiliated" with modern tribes. But the law does not specifically address time. And it is silent on the question of whether there are some remains so old that by their sheer antiquity they cannot be "culturally affiliated" with modern tribes. The scientists suing over Kennewick Man are trying to persuade a court to rule that, in fact, once you get back 10,000 years ago, it is impossible for remains to be culturally affiliated with modern tribes. The federal government and the five tribes on the other side of the case argue the opposite.
I was dismayed to see your article accepting the cultural anthropologist line that racial differences are meaningless or so tiny as to be insignificant. The argument seems to be that because there are intermediates between races (ie, hybrids from cross-racial breeding), that races themselves do not exist. This is akin saying that "yellow" and "green" do not really exist, or are mere social constructs, because there is a spectrum of colors between them.
I don't see how presenting such a biased description of current views on anthropology can have been designed to accomplish anything other than encouraging sympathy for the Indians' anti-scientific views regarding the ancient skeleton.
Steve Coll: The questioner reflects one side of the argument. I won't try to recapitulate the reporting and analysis on this point that is in the article because it's too complex. I can see from the questions piling up in the queue that as this discussion goes along, we're going to hear from a number of passionate defenders of the race concept. All I can say is, as the article lays out, there is little evidence in biology to support this viewpoint, the great majority of biologists believes.
The Corps Of Engineers has been accused of destroying the site (by burial) where Kennewick Man was found, but I didn't see this mentioned in the article. Was this omission because the allegation has been found to be untrue? If not, has the Corps ever provided ar reasoned explanation for burying the site?
Steve Coll: Another questioner in the queue also pointed out that I failed to mention that at one point -- I think it was in 1997--the Corps did bury the site where Kennewick Man was found. It's true, they did so, and it was an important trigger event in getting the federal government more deeply involved in the case. When scientists and congressmen learned that the Corps had covered up the site -- they were doing so as part of an unrelated river management project -- they reacted with some outrage. The controversy was one factor, I was told, in the White House's decision to encourage the Corps to assign the Interior Department primary responsibility to sort out the government's position on Kennewick Man. I didn't include the controversy about the Corps in the story only because I didn't have enough space.
HLB, Mt. Lebanon, Pa.:
First, that was a wonderful story that appeared yesterday, I passed it on to my relatives -- none of them claimed a relation to Kennewick man. Can scientists get any DNA material (in order to start a comprehensive biochemical database) from "dem ol' bones" or in most cases is all the marrow long since dessicated and useless for this purpose? If yes, to your knowledge is anyone doing so? Thanks much.
Steve Coll: The scientists working with the Interior Department did try to extract DNA from Kennewick Man's bones, over the fierce objections of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the five tribes. However, the effort failed. I'm not expert enough to know exactly what it is that makes it difficult to extract DNA from very old bones, but I gather that it is often a difficult feat.
Your article presents the argument that racial differences are minute, and that for this reason it will be either impossible, or meaningless, for scientists to attempt to identify the racial characteristics of Kennewick man.
This is based on a particular view of physical anthropology, and it is a shame that you did not present as adequate a description of the other side of the argument.
Whether you like it or not, racial differences, as many many physical anthropologists can tell you, are very real, and race is not a "social construct." Think of it like this: If you took an Australian Aborigine, and made his skin the same color as that of a European from France, would he look European? Of course not. The Aborigine's heavy brow ridge, third molars, larger teeth, heavier jaw, exceptionally long legs, etc etc etc would result in a white-toned aborigine, not a European.
Race is real. Color, however, is largely irrelevant to racial categorization. As Darwin said, "Colour is generally esteemed by the systematic naturalist as unimportant." Other physical characteristics, apart from color, illustrate the physical reality of race. Denying this reality is a political agenda, not a scientific position. You unfortunately advanced this agenda in your article on the Kennewick man.
Steve Coll: Here is another defender of the race concept. Actually, I think the article does give some vent to this point of view, particularly in the section that gives voice to George Gil of the University of Wyoming, whose views on this subject are sincerely held and carefully articulated. But as Gil himself says, he is a rather lonely voice in his field. Many anthropologists would say that is because Gil is wrong, but Gil argues it is only because others who think as he does are afraid to speak out.
How do you think the court will rule?
Steve Coll: Hard to say. The government lawyers felt that the judge's preliminary opinion showed that the judge had at least an initial inclination to rule in favor of the scientists. But the legal landscape has changed considerably since Judge Jelderks wrote that initial opinion. Now the federal government has carefully reviewed the scientific questions around the Kennewick remains and has rendered its official judgment that the remains are culturally affiliated with modern tribes and should be returned. Lawyers involved in the case think this means that Judge Jelderks now must make his decision based on a new standard: Whether the Interior department "abused its discretion" or something along those lines, in making its judgment. Since the law generally grants federal agencies wide latitude in exercising discretion in cases like this, it may make it more difficult than before for the scientists to prevail. But nobody involved in the case that I talked to thinks the outcome is certain or preordained.
That comment in the article comparing the Native Americans to the Irish was truly ignorant and insulting. Instead of asking why the Native Americans can't assimilate, the better question is why in 21st century American we can't find a way to make America celebrate and acknowledge all of its cultures and ethnic traditions. I support science and trying to learn all we can about the history of all humans on this planet, but there should be a way to do that and still respect Native American values and beliefs.
Steve Coll: Well said.
I found your article very biased in favor of so-called "genetic" analyses of race, and biased against the methodology employed by physical anthropologists. You defined race "in genetic terms" as if that were the only definition, and discounted the study of manifested physical differences between human populations. I believe this approach slants the issue in favor of the anti-scientific Indians, because it discounts (by omission) the legitimacy of the very science that some would like to see used in the study of Kennewick Man's remains.
How would you respond to this critique?
Steve Coll: Here's another defender of the race concept. Let me add an additional voice that criticizes my story for the same reasons and then I will try to reply.
Your article asserts that "the most accurate way to describe the small genetic variation that exists between groups is not to focus on visual traits such as skin color, but to ask how far one group lives from another. The farther away one group is from another, the greater the genetic variation." This is an attempt to discount the validity of the concept of "race," but in fact it confirms it. If, say, one looks at someone from Norway, and then at someone from Japan, they are obviously very different physically. They also are geographically very far from one another. But there is really no meaningful distinction between saying "they are geographically distinct components of the human species," and "they are different races". One is just more wordy than the other.
This is significant because the Kennewick Man would appear to be from a human subspecies that is of a different geographic origin than modern American Indians. Whether you call it "race" or something else, the difference is there.
Steve Coll: I do not agree that geographic correlation confirms the race concept. But I think this questioner, while coming at it from a point of view that defends the race concept, is raising an important issue that my story perhaps did not fully articulate, except indirectly. That is, it's true, that one of the issues that both defenders and opponents of the race concept must grapple with is the value and/or the harm that comes with using the language of race. In other words, as the questioner says, since there is some human physical variation that correlates with geography, why not call it race? (That is different from saying that it "proves" race is valid.) In answer to this question, I think many cultural anthropologists who are seeking to rid the world of race language would argue that the history of race--the violence, discrimination, genocide, slavery, all the horrors associated with this concept--should make us want to run away from the words rather than cling to them, especially if biology tells us that we are free to use new language to describe the facts. If that makes any sense...sorry...complicated stuff, isn't it...
You might refer people interest to the American Anthropological Association's "Statement on Race" at:
Thomas Kavanagh, PhD
Curator of Collections
Steve Coll: Yes, anyone interested in this story would find the full statement useful.
Newport Beach, Calif.:
You rather nonchalantly state that American scientists provided the "underpinnings" for the Holocaust. What evidence do you have that Hitler or any of his cronies used any American science while developing the views and machinery that led to and caused the Holocaust?
Nowhere in you article does anyone make a statement anywhere near as racist or as incendiary as that one.
(By the way, saying the Atlantic said so last month doesn't count.)
Steve Coll: I did not say that American scientists alone provided intellectual underpinnings for the Holocaust. But along with European scientists their work did inform the tradition of eugenics that provided intellectual underpinnings for Hitler's extermination campaigns. The vast majority of the intellectual history of the Holocaust documents this.
Upper Marlboro, Md.:
What does the first amendment have to do with the remains?
Steve Coll: The scientists suing to study the remains cite their First Amendment rights as part of their argument. This is a novel argument but as Judge Jelderks wrote in his 1997 opinion, it has certain appealing aspects given the history of First Amendment law. That is: The government generally ought not to lock up information that it possesses that scholars and the public wants to review, unless the government has a compelling interest such as national security. The government's ability to sequester information generally has to balance its legitimate interests with those of the public, and the scientists are saying that's an important aspect of their claim. The legal briefs on this issue are pretty interesting reading. I have no idea how the courts will ultimately rule on this point and the lawyers I talk to say the argument feels like a stretch, but it is certainly novel and provocative.
How unfortunate that the Kennewick Man dispute has turned into that particularly modern spectacle -- a courtroom struggle. Has there been any attempt at another, post-modern if you will, solution to disputes -- the out-of-court dispute resolution? (my question)
Having the sides agree to, on the one hand, learn more about Native American history and culture, and on the other hand, learn more about the best Western scientific scholarship, then sit down with a mediator to discuss the issue, both sides (and its spectators) would be the better for it.
Because Kennewick Man does not appear to fall within easy categories, a golden opportunity has appeared to explore variations among the early American population -- something that could benefit both "Westerners" and Native Americans (if they are interested). What is curious is that both sides criticize each other for being insensitive and backward-looking (to the 19th century). Why can't the disputants rather be forward-looking and explore new ways to define ourselves through studying, and thus respecting, past history rather than using the dispute as a way to somehow roll-back "Indian" rights (some Anglos) or claim all those ancient remains found on North American soil as members of Native American peoples modernly defined and deny others from studying them until their place in the historical record is agreed upon (Native Americans). This may mean that Kennewick Man may have an indefinite stay "above ground" but it appears, in the end, that the Native American claimants should not bury the remains forever until a proper identification of the bones can be made. Until then, if ever, he is a man without a country -- or tribe -- and thus should not be used as a modern "football" but rather a rallying point for post-modern cooperation.
P.S. My interest in this issue stems from the fact that my grandfather, Dr. John L. Cotter, was (he is now deceased) led the dig that first uncovered ancient spear-points in North America, at Clovis, N.M., hence the term "Clovis" points. From what he told me while growing up, he appears to have thus been part, if not a forefather, of what you have previously described as "the old guard," guarding the idea of a mass-migration of Asiatic peoples along the Bering land bridge around 11,000 years ago and continuously testing new ideas of other, earlier coastal, boat-faring peoples. Dr. Cotter unfortunately passed away just as these new ideas were gaining traction.
I do not want to speak for the dead, but as a true and respected scholar, his skepticism was based on a thirst for "best explanations" and wanted to see scholarhip that could stand up to whithering scrutiny. As you can imagine, he had little time for what he called "bunk" and "piffle-minded" ideas.
One important consideration to acknowledge in the discussion on early origins of human habitation of North America, or all historical inquiry for that matter, is that the investigation itself is part of history and is always subject to new discoveries, theories, contemporary social issues, and technology. I'm sure my grandfather would be the very first to acknowledge this and thought that the land bridge theory was merely a starting point and not and ending point to the matter, if one could ever be found. The investigation was the exciting part, and the "conclusions" only meant for constant revisitation and scrutiny. It was a kind of religion - one which derived personal strength from the faith to the idea that as long as we humans were exploring, we could better understand our origins and our direction, much like Genesis and Nostradamus to Christians or the oral tradition to Native Americans.
My grandfather Dr. Cotter, lived to experience the discovery of Kennewick Man, but only the beginning of the fallout. I'm sure if the cancer didn't carry him off, the folly surrounding Kennewick Man probably could have. In the end, I think he would have found solace, however, in the idea that the folly of the 20th and 21st century would keep "social analysts" of the 22nd century and beyond busy indefinitely, and therefore provide a constant source of industry and hope.
Steve Coll: A long question but an interesting one. To go back to the question at the very top of this submission: Why not seek a non-legal settlement that accomodates both scientists and Native Americans? Many anthropologists say that's exactly the approach that is needed in these sorts of cases. And there are instances where very old remains have been discovered and jointly studied by scientists and tribes, and where there has not been a resort to litigation.
Was their no claim by the college student who actually discovered the bones?
Steve Coll: Not that I'm aware of. The land in question was federal land managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, and under federal law, an individual who finds protected artifacts on such land doesn't have a viable "finder's keepers" claim, as I understand it.
We tell our kids that the Americas are somehow "different" from other continents because "we're all immigrants" here. We teach our kids that Native Americans are "immigrants" because they likely came here from Asia 10 or 20 thousand years ago. But you know -- Ireland was unpopulated 5,000 years ago. The "Anglo-Saxon" race didn't exist 2,000 years ago. There's no European nation/race that's been around for 10 or 20 thousand years. We Americans are still desperately rationalizing the brutality of our genocide of native peoples, and all the hoopla over "Kennewick" man is just a small part of this.
"We're all immigrants?" Yeah, right.
Steve Coll: I do think there is a kind of echoing between the way scientists and others argue over the origins of human settlement in America and the very contemporary debates we have about immigration policy. Perhaps it's an unconscious sort of projection of current anxieties onto the fragmentary evidence we have about the past.
The physical differences amongst humans that arose strictly because of geography and environment can be acknowledged scientifically because they do offer clues as to where and how ancestors lived. But I agree that to call them "racial" differences is too loaded by humans' miserable treatment of one another to be promulgated today. If it takes more words to say "physical differences caused by geography, etc. etc." than it does to say "race", so be it. I'd rather that than to give any justification, and argumentative weapons to today's racists.
Steve Coll: Yes, this is the issue. And of course, it's worth remembering, even while sorting out what language to use for the small differences that are due to geography and time, that these differences themselves are not at all significant in biological terms, or so biologists tell us. Many opponents of the race concept would say that is an even more important point than the poisoned history of race language and the race concept.
Why is there such deference to the antiquated cosmology of the Native Americans (i.e., the belief that their ancestors had been in North America forever), when it is obviously not true? It seems similar to fundamentalist Christians trying to teach the Bible as the literal story of creation in science class, which is generally not tolerated either.
Steve Coll: The question of how to evaluate the "oral tradition" evidence submitted to the Interior Department was especially controversial. Some felt it should not be considered at all. Some felt it should be accorded significant weight. The tribes themselves were insistent that the evidence be considered, as the law requires, but did not argue that it was definitive. There is a small corner of cultural anthropology that I came across while reporting the story where Native American scientists and other scientists are trying to develop a consensus about how to make genuine scientific use of oral tradition evidence, an approach that would sort oral tradition stories for fragments in them that correspond to documented historical events. This is an approach that some scholars also take to the Bible.
Congrats on an excellent piece of journalism. I was trained as an anthropologist, and I found the work to be thorough and clear.
I think the debate over this specimen very nicely brings into relief some of the basic contentions between cultural and physical anthropologists. I personally think that neither side is very objective and the "science" on both sides of the argument is often very weak. They are a tiring bunch of egotists who are hustling to get their 15 minutes of fame. Trust me. I used to live among them.
I think the specimen is extremely valuable for all Americans. I hope it is preserved. But I hope the court can find an objective team of researcher to perform the work. I would not award the physical anthropologists involved in the case the opportunity to work on this case.
Steve Coll: Thanks for the comment.
Have the Senate or House weighed in at all? The local Washington state delegation?
Steve Coll: Individual members of Congress, including some from the Washington delegation, have raised questions or gotten involved from time to time as the controversy unfolded. The larger question is whether Congress will ever attempt to amend NAGPRA to address the question of very old remains. The suing scientists would like this. Indian tribes promise to fight very hard to prevent it. I'm not aware of any Congress members who are interested in pursuing this right now, but I may be overlooking some. I would guess that Congress will watch the court decisions first before deciding whether it is necessary to reopen what was a painful and long debate over NAGPRA.
I have followed this issue since the skull was discovered. And find the debate riveting. Growing up among Native Americans of the Southwest I know that Sovereignty, Land & Water Rights all hinge on the ability to prove an unbroken time line of habitation in a known cultural area. I think the Umatilla Tribe fear, with good reason, that if there were Caucasoid/Europeans here long before they were supposed to be, their traditional land and resource claims would be threatened.
That Said, I thought your mention of the atrocities brought upon the remains of Native Americans in the name of Science was poignant and more the core issue here.
Steve Coll: Let me just post a few of the comments piling up in the queue so people can see the range of opinions.
Kennewick Man confronts us again with that especially American problem: the separation of church and state. Native Amnerican belief sees the Kennewick skeleton as a sacred symbol; and secular science views the remains as an anthropological goldmine. Or is it that researchers are on their knees to the holy grail of 'the scientific method'; and activist Native Americans fear a loss of political power should their claims to unlimited control of prehistoric remains be curtailed? The devil is in the details.
Steve Coll: Here's another.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Why are today's Europeans trying to insinuate so much that they have been in other parts of the world earlier than those considered mongoloids? First of all, today's definition of races should not be applied to the long years past. Nomadic people originating from central Asia have been spreading in all directions over the milleniums and changed the racial and cultural characteristics of the settled regions of the world they ingressed. Their physical features varied from time to time because they were of different origins. By and large, they were, so called, Mongoloids.
Like China today that suffered the most from the ingresses of the "wild" nomadic Mongoloids, most of European countries share vestiges of Mongoloid intrusions. Is it politically incorrect to admit that most nothern hemisphere is bound by this common thread?
Steve Coll: One more.
Thank you for the excellent article. Without explicitly saying as much, the article reveals that the argument presented by the government and the tribes is really a non-sequitur; if there is no such thing as race, then why conduct any inquiry at all? A 10,000 year-old skeleton found in Kennewick is no different from a 100 year-old skeleton found there -- they are all part of the same tribe, it must necessarily follow. Did you provide any of your sources with an opportunity to review the article before you sent if for publication, and if so, did anyone comment on this apparent inconsistency?
Steve Coll: Unlike scientists, we Post journalists don't send our stories out to sources for review in advance of publication. But I did discuss the question you raise at various points along the reporting trail. The confusion and debate over what race is and what it means stood at the center of the controversy, as I tried to describe, and it does not usually attract a full or nuanced discussion. But the law itself, the law at the center of the court case, is not interested in the language of "race." Its concern is whether a particular set of remains is "culturally affiliated" with modern tribes--that's the language the law uses. That's a question that you may say is related to "race," but it's not exactly the same thing.
Orwell and Vonnegut would have been proud to see in this discussion the prescience of their writings. People are different at a basic genetic level owing to mutation coupled with geographic isolation. No one would seriously argue that one could not tell the difference between a European and an Asian. Yet your article and this discussion continue to promote the politically correct notion that "race" does not exist. By pretending that there are no differences among people when clearly there are we likewise undermine our ability to celebrate those differences and provide special protections where needed. The government, the tribes, and many in this discussion who think they are doing good by pretending race does not exist are in fact doing quite the opposite; why have Federal laws protecting against discrimination on the basis of race if race doesn't exist?
Steve Coll: Another defender of the race concept. My article does discuss the difference between evaluating race as biology and evaluating race as lived experience. I do think that's a crucial distinction.
New York, N.Y.:
Are you shocked at the sheer number of individuals who are still wedded to the notion of race? As I understood it, and as I believe modern geneticist are positing it, is the concept that race as color tells you little in the way of cultural etc. That our collective preoccupation with race is misleading. I find it fascinating that some would still use race as the sine qua non for what makes us human. Face it the one drop of blood argument is indeed reaching critical mass. Anyway great article.
James A. Lynch, Jr.
Steve Coll: To be honest I did not expect to come on line and find the queue full of defenders of the race concept. But I guess no American can be surprised by the enduring role and power of race in our society.
In what sense could the remains be said to be "culturally affiliated" with any of the tribes which are a party to the suit? On the basis of geography alone or some sort of cultural artifact? I thought "culture" was something manmade.
Steve Coll: If you go to the Interior Department's web site, you can see how paintstakingly they reviewed the questions you ask. Essentially, they tried to evaluate every possible source of relevant evidence--biological, archeological, geological, cultural, artifacts, etc. and then they asked Babbitt to step back and make a "preponderance of the evidence" determination based on all the factors. And he decided that most of the evidence suggested cultural affiliation. But his letter is careful and acknowledges that the evidence incomplete and in some respects frustratingly fragmentary.
After plowing through all that verbiage at the American Anthropological Association Statement on "Race", basically it doesn't say anything -- other than going into a one-sided version of how the term "race" has been abused in the last couple hundred years. If that is a scientific organization that is inquiring into differences in humans, they are woefully short on science (and even of proper research into history). Are there physical characteristics of remains (like bones) of different groups of humans that can be used to differentiate them by scientists? Yes. Are Native Americans one such sub-group? Yes. Do the remains found exhibit such physical characteristics to be able to link him as an ancestor of the Native American petitioners? That is the question that needs to be answered. Just because a body was found on a particular swath of ground does not establish their race. If a white criminal that was mortally wounded made it onto a Native American sacred burial ground, and then died, does that automatically make him an ancestor of the Native American tribe? I don't think so.
Steve Coll: Well, it does seem that the field of physical anthropology will be replenished by a new generation of adherents. On that note, I guess I'll sign off. Thanks to everyone for writing.
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