The Power of Race as a Concept: Kennewick Man

About ten years ago, a skeleton was uncovered on the banks of the Columbia River in Eastern Washington; the bones were dated to around 7600 B.C.E. Almost immediately, a debate arose over who had “rights” to the bones: the Umatilla, Yakama and Nez Perce tribes who saw the remains as an ancestor who should be left alone and reburied, and members of the scientific community—archeologists and anthropologists–who saw Kennewick Man as a rare find, a subject for study that could reveal significant information about human history.

The debate over the cultural and historical meanings of this 9000 year old skeleton reveals the power that the concept of race still wields for us, and how entangled racism is in places we might not expect to find it. While the debate over Kennewick Man can be seen as a conflict of world views and cultural values–Native American faith and traditions up against Western scientific rationalism–closer examination, such as Jack Hitts Harper’s article, “Mighty White of You”, reveals how race and racism permeate the story.

To begin with, the Native American claim to the bones is based in the 1990 Native American Graves Repatriation Act, an attempt by the Federal Government to make up for well over a century of mishandling (at best) and desecration (at worst) of Native American remains, often in the name of science and the pursuit of knowledge (Hitts cites an estimate of 200,000 Indian skeletons held in museums).

The claims of the scientific community, on the other hand, have relied in part on the identification of Kennewick Man’s remains as not being paleo-Indian (and therefore not an ancestor of the current-day Umatilla and Nez Perce ), but instead being “Caucasoid”. Underneath the scientific debate Hitts identifies a powerful and racially charged motivation: the need to say “We (Europeans) were actually here first; therefore our dominance is justified.”

The results of genetic investigations published in 2015 strongly pointed toward a Native American ancestry of Kennewick Man, after which the Asatru Folk Assembly supported the Native American tribes claims. The genetic evidence adds to “growing evidence that ancestors of the New World’s aboriginal peoples originated in Siberia and migrated across a land mass that spanned the Bering Strait during the last ice age. And it would undermine alternative theories that some early migrants arrived from Southeast Asia or even Europe.

 

 

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sources: Accessed 24/09/16 https://www.pcc.edu/resources/illumination/documents/race-and-racism-curriculum.pdf (Picture)https://www.haikudeck.com/kennewick-man-uncategorized-presentation-3y8x53cl4N

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