Dressed in cloak and buckled tunic, his voice rumbling with conviction, the leader of a pre-Christian pagan sect summons ancient Norse gods to a site where a wounded man died 90 centuries ago.

"O-thin! O-thin!" booms Asatru Folk Assembly leader Stephen McNallen, using the old pronunciation to address Odin, one-eyed god of war, poetry, wisdom and death.

McNallen's altar, in a park overlooking the mighty Columbia River, is only a few hundred yards from where the 9,300-year-old skeleton known as Kennewick Man was discovered last summer.

Since his discovery, the Kennewick Man has become embroiled in a bitter dispute involving scientists who want to study him, Native Americans who want him laid to rest and McNallen's group, which claims him as their forefather.

All those involved say the stakes are enormous.

To Native Americans, who call the man "Oyt.pa.ma.na.tit.tite," the battle could influence future claims to ancient remains. To scientists, who say the fossil human could challenge theories about the first settling of the Americas, the loss of the Kennewick Man and others like him would rob them of priceless information.

"It's an extremely important skeleton," said Douglas Owsley, division head for physical anthropology of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. "There are so few skeletons that date back that far in good preservation."

The remains were discovered by two college students watching boat races July 28, 1996, on the Columbia River. Wading along the wave-swept banks of the river, the two stumbled over the scattered fossils and took them to the local coroner.

The coroner in turn contacted a local anthropological consultant named Jim Chatters. Chatters, an intense thinker with a philosophic bent and a PhD from the University of Washington, was impressed by the good condition of the nearly intact skeleton. He speculated the remains, which lacked typical Native American characteristics but had several strong Caucasoid-like features, were those of an early white pioneer.

Those speculations were turned upside-down by the discovery of an ancient stone spear point thrust into Kennewick Man's hip. A subsequent radio-carbon dating set the age of the find at a startling 7265 to 7535 B.C.

The Kennewick Man, it turned out, was the oldest intact human fossil ever found in the Northwest, and one of only a handful found in North America.

Within four days, one of the great battles of modern archaeological times had begun.

Local Indian tribes laid claim to the skeleton, citing the 1990 Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that returns human remains and burial goods to culturally affiliated tribes.

They demanded all scientific testing be stopped and their ancestor be reburied, his disturbed spirit put to rest. "Our older people are very hurt that this individual is still above ground," said Armand Minthorn, a long-braided leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, across the river in Oregon. "Our ancestral bones are sacred; they are holy."

The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the riverfront where the bones were found, confiscated the skeleton on behalf of a five-tribe coalition, led by the Umatillas.

In response, a group of eight internationally known scientists -- including anthropologists Owsley and Dennis Stanford with the Smithsonian Institution -- sued the corps, demanding the right to study a skeleton that could provide key data on the peopling of the Americas. The find "represents a rare discovery of national and international scientific significance," read the scientists' complaint.

The Asatru Folk Assembly, a 30-year-old California-based group whose members claim descendancy from Northern European ancestors, hired its own attorney. The group, which calls the Kennewick Man "The Far-Traveling One," filed a suit seeking further scientific study.

Officials at the Army Corps of Engineers, criticized by the federal judge overseeing the case for acting "prematurely," say they are only attempting to follow NAGPRA. "We're in court because, as we see it, we're trying to obey the law," said corps spokesman Dutch Meier.

Alan Schneider, the Oregon attorney representing the eight scientists, questions whether the remains fall under the province of NAGPRA, since no scientific links to Native Americans have been established. He doubts local tribes will be able to prove cultural affiliation.

"In my opinion, it's impossible in this situation," said Schneider, who predicts if the case ends up in court, the testimony could rival that of the Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925, in which Darwinism was defended against creationism. "It is a seminal case," said Schneider. "By the time it is done, this will be the case that sets a lot of the framework for all future NAGPRA cases."

Both the corps and the scientists must submit reports to the Oregon-based judge by Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, the disconnected remains of the primitive, 5-foot-9-inch man sit in a two-foot-long white wooden box inside a climate-controlled repository at the local Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, home to archaeological collections from the nearby Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Anthropologist Chatters, for one, hopes to see them liberated. "If every time a skeleton shows up, we toss it back in the ground for fear of offending someone, we will never learn anything," said the anthropologist, impatient with what he calls "racial politics."

What scientists can learn from Kennewick Man could very well shatter conventional wisdom, said Chatters, one of only three scientists to examine the skeleton before it was boxed up.

He describes the man he calls "The Ultimate Elder" as a tall, thin man of about 45 to 50 years, with a long, narrow face, a slight overbite, a prominent Kirk Douglas chin and a square jaw. "He could slip into most major cities of the modern world and not appear unusual."

In conjunction with similar human fossil finds around the country, the Kennewick Man could challenge established theories about the earliest settlers of the Americas, Chatters said. The most popular is the Bering Land Bridge theory, which postulates that the Asian predecessors of Native Americans passed over a land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. Scientists have surmised these predecessors were the first and only to migrate into the Americas.

But because of his Caucasoid features, Kennewick Man could be from an entirely different genetic line, one possibly wiped out by ancestors of modern Native Americans. "There is the possibility of multiple migrations, multiple gene lines, multiple races," said Chatters.

To many American Indians, such theories are meaningless.

Part of a wave of native "creationism" spreading nationwide, a growing number of tribal members are returning to traditional stories of origin to tell their roots -- stories of humans arising from drops of blood sprinkled on Mother Earth, or humans emerging from subterranean undergrounds. They say the stories are true, that they show Indian people have always been here, since time was created. They say their ancestors did not cross any land bridges.

"People ask me, Don't you want to know how a person lived 9,000 years ago,' " said Minthorn, a slight, soft-spoken man. "The answer is no. We already know our history." Minthorn, appointed to a NAGPRA review panel by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, is one of three Umatillas who visited the remains of "Oyt.pa.ma.na.tit.tite" at Battelle in April, singing songs from the Washut religion during a 25-minute ceremony.

"It was a way for us to be recognized by this individual," Minthorn said, "a way to say, We are still here, we are still working to get you back in the ground.' "

Learning of this and other tribal visitations, the Asatru Folk Assembly also asked for access to the remains. Asatru attorney Michael Clinton said denying such access would represent "unequal treatment," and a restriction of religious rights.

The corps gave the okay, and Asatru leader -- or "gothi" -- McNallen decided on two ceremonies -- a private one at the repository, and the public one in the park.

Described on its Web site as a "pre-Christian European tribal religion," the Asatru group claims 500 members nationwide and publishes its own magazine, the Runestone, with odes to Viking gods and goddesses and articles on topics as arcane as hunting boars with spears.

McNallen, a former Texan and Roman Catholic who spent four years as an Army officer and has worked as a substitute teacher in Nevada City, described the ceremony as profoundly emotional. Members of the assembly recited verses over the bagged-up bones in the opened white box, which still had cedar branches in it from earlier Indian ceremonies -- a fact that prompted scientists to worry that such organic matter could compromise the fragile skeleton.

After recitations, the Asatrus passed around a juice drink in a horn -- officials disallowed alcoholic mead.

McNallen raised his hands high to the heaven, and called to the ancient Viking gods. "Hail Othin!" he cried.

"Hail Othin!" his followers echoed, their collective voices moving down the mowed grass to the beach where an ancient man with a spear in his hip once came to rest. CAPTION: Stephen McNallen, leader of the pagan Asatru Folk Assembly, honors Kennewick Man and Norse gods in a ceremony in Kennewick, Wash. CAPTION: Stephen McNallen, a priest with the pagan Asatru Folk Assembly, calls on the Norse god Odin during a religious ceremony for the Kennewick Man.