Friends of America's Past

The Kennewick Man Case | Events


What is the Kennewick Man case?

The Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons found in this country, lived over 9,000 years ago (about 450 generations). The bones were found in July 1996 eroding from the bank of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. The Army Corps of Engineers announced they would repatriate the remains to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, but did not require the Umatilla to establish a cultural relationship as NAGPRA requires. The Umatilla ignored repeated requests by scientists to evalutate the remains. The Colville tribe also objected to the Army Corps decision, claiming the Corps had ignored NAGPRA.

Eight anthropologists filed lawsuit to halt the Army Corps' arbitrary repatriation process, which would have resulted in the immediate reburial of the remains by the Umatilla. In the meantime, five independent tribes (from eastern Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) formed a coaltion for the purpose of making a joint claim for the remains.

Exciting new scientific theories about the peopling of the Americas are changing our understanding of the past. Kennewick Man adds an important piece to this puzzle. This unique, nearly complete skeleton was almost reburied without any study. The Kennewick Man lawsuit is the first challenge to an agency's implementation of NAGPRA.

Who's involved in the lawsuit?

Eight scientists filed suit against the USA, Dept. of the Army, Army Corps of Engineers for the right to study the skeleton. The Departments of Interior and Justice are also involved. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, OR, with Magistrate Judge John Jelderks presiding. The eight scientists filed as individual citizens, so their academic institutions are not party to the lawsuit. They include Drs. Robson Bonnichsen, C. Loring Brace, George Gill, C. Vance Haynes, Richard Jantz, Douglas Owsley, Dennis Stanford, and D. Gentry Steele. The attorneys for the scientists are Alan L. Schneider and Paula A. Barran.

The Society of American Archeology and a coaltion of five tribes (Umatilla, Colville, Yakama, Nez Perce, and Wanapum) were granted amicus curiae status (friends of the court) later in the process.

The case was brought in the fall of 1996. Six years later, on August 30, 2002, an opinion was handed down.

The Court ruled, among other things, that:

  • the Secretary of the Interior's decision to give the Kennewick Man skeleton to the claiming tribes was arbitrary and capricious

  • the tribes did not adequately identify a prior group to which the Kennewick Man belonged as NAGPRA requires (nor they could not show a shared group identity with the Kennewick Man)>

  • the DOI's definition of 'Native American' is not valid

  • Kennewick Man skeleton is not subject to NAGPRA

  • scientists have a statutory right to study ancient artifacts and remains such as the Kennewick Man

  • the scientists may study and must submit a study plan to the Department of the Interior within 45 days of the August 30, 2002 ruling.

  • the Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Historic Preservation Act when they buried the site.

The Department of Justice and a new Joint Tribal Coaltion (without the federally non-recognized Wanapum band) have filed appeals to the ruling. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will review the opinion.

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