YAKIMA, Wash. – A federal law governing protection of American Indian graves would be amended to allow scientific study of ancient remains discovered on federal lands if the remains have not been tied to a current tribe, under a bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings.
The bill marks the latest step in a dispute sparked by the discovery of Kennewick Man, one of the oldest and most complete skeletons ever found in North America.
Indian tribes and researchers battled over rights to the 9,300-year-old remains for nine years before a federal court sided with the scientists, allowing them to study the bones.
Hastings, R-Wash., said his bill counters efforts in the Senate that would prevent ancient remains from being studied in the future.
He cited a case in Nevada where tribal leaders have filed suit against the government to rebury the Spirit Cave Man remains, believed to be more than 10,000 years old.
"My proposal protects the rights of present-day Native Americans to claim the remains of their ancestors when found on federal lands," Hastings said. "At the same time, it reiterates that in cases of truly ancient human remains — such as Kennewick Man — Congress does not intend to block scientific study."
Hastings announced his plans to sponsor the legislation while visiting a Kennewick Man exhibit at the East Benton County Historical Society Museum in Kennewick, close to where the skeleton was discovered.
Hastings is offering his fix in response to a proposed amendment that scientists say would allow federally recognized tribes to claim ancient remains even if they cannot prove a link to a current tribe.
"This will make it crystal clear that ancient remains should be studied by scientists and not automatically turned over to the tribes," Hastings said.
Matthew Tomaskin, legislative liaison for the Yakama Nation, said he was familiar with the proposal, but added that he wished Hastings had consulted the tribes. The Yakama Nation reservation sits within Hastings' district.
"We're right smack dab in the middle of his district, and he's proposing legislation that would greatly affect us without consultation," he said.
Following the discovery of Kennewick Man in 1996, the Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce and Colville tribes urged that the skeleton should be reburied without scientific study.
Scientists sued for a chance to study the remains, and a federal court ruled there was no link between the skeleton and the tribes.
Earlier this year, the team of 20 forensic scientists studying the bones began to release its findings, including a belief that Kennewick Man was buried, rather than swept up in a flood and encased in sediment.
The scientists also concluded that the skull does not match those of Indian tribes living in the area.