No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons - Jeff Benedict (2003)


“Treat the remains as Native American until proven otherwise.” That’s what the Umatilla Indian tribe had told the Army Corps of Engineers back on July 29, the day after Kennewick Man surfaced in the Columbia River. In 1855, the Umatilla ceded lands to the United States in a treaty that formed the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. The treaty established a reservation in Oregon, approximately seventy-five miles south of where Kennewick Man surfaced. Prior to the treaty, the Umatilla were among a number of tribes that inhabited or used the Columbia River area around Kennewick.

Before the Kennewick Man discovery, both the corps and the local coroner’s office had found Indian remains along the Columbia River and turned them over to tribes for reburial. The Umatilla’s religion requires that exposed remains be treated with utmost respect and immediately reinterred. To the Umatilla, any old remains were Indian remains. The tribe claimed that its oral and religious traditions held that the Umatilla did not have contact with non–Native Americans until 1805, when Lewis and Clark arrived.

The Umatilla’s directive to treat Kennewick Man as if he were Native American was issued to the Walla Walla, Washington, office of the Army Corps of Engineers, which had oversight of the federal land where the discovery occurred. The same day that the corps heard from the Umatilla, corps archaeologist Ray Tracy talked to Jim Chatters, who said that the Kennewick Man looked nothing like the Indian remains that typically surface in the Columbia River region. Tracy issued to Chatters an archaeological resources permit authorizing him to return to the site in search of more bones and artifacts that might aid in establishing Kennewick Man’s identity.

The Umatilla were not told that an archaeological permit had been issued to Chatters. Assuming no research or study would be performed on Kennewick Man, the Umatilla fully expected to take possession of him once the coroner’s office formally announced that the discovery site was not a contemporary crime scene. The corps did not tell the Umatilla that Kennewick Man had been in Chatters’s basement laboratory for five weeks; that it had been analyzed by a second anthropologist, who had determined that the remains were not Native American; or that a bone sample had been sent to California for radiocarbon dating.

Euphoric over Kennewick Man’s age, Jim Chatters faced a quandary. Convinced that the skeleton in his basement deserved long-term study and analysis by the nation’s top scientists, he sensed there wouldn’t be time for either. Familiar with the Umatilla’s oral tradition, Chatters knew that the tribe would demand Kennewick Man the minute Floyd Johnson announced the skeleton’s age to the press. While he was convinced that Kennewick Man could not be Native American and should not go to the tribe, Chatters felt that he and Johnson might not be able to prevent it. As the titleholders to the federal land where Kennewick Man had surfaced, the federal government had the final say in the skeleton’s destination.

Seeking advice, Chatters telephoned Professor Gentry Steele, an anthropologist at Texas A&M who had studied and published on prehistoric skeletons.

Listening to Chatters describe Kennewick Man’s features, Steele agreed that it sounded like nothing he had encountered. He wanted to inspect it himself. But he couldn’t get up to Washington in the foreseeable future. And the political situation that Chatters sensed arising gave Steele the impression that an expert in ancient remains should look at it right away.

“Whom do you suggest?” Chatters asked.

“I’d try Doug Owsley,” said Steele

Chatters had heard of Owsley, but was immediately turned off at the prospect of involving the Smithsonian, which housed more Indian remains than any other museum in the country, a fact that angered many tribes. It would only inflame the situation with the Umatilla.

Steele told Chatters that Owsley had studied thousands of skeletons, including collections from many western tribes. And he explained that Owsley had just returned from the Nevada State Museum, where he had helped curator Amy Dansie analyze a 10,650-year-old mummy—one nearly the same age as Kennewick Man. “Doug has a whole team that comes in to do it,” Steele said.

Chatters hung up with Steele and decided to sleep on the question of whether to call Owsley. Besides trying to avoid the Smithsonian’s negative image among Indian tribes, Chatters also did not want some hotshot Smithsonian scientist taking away his opportunity to study Kennewick Man.

The next morning, before the press conference, Chatters called the Nevada State Museum. He reached Amy Dansie. After explaining her situation and the service Owsley and his team had performed at her museum, Dansie gave Chatters the same advice Steele had: Call Doug Owsley.

Instead, Chatters went to a hastily organized press conference at city hall. It drew very little press: one local newspaper reporter and two local television reporters. Following a brief explanation of the date and its relevance, Chatters and Floyd Johnson sat next to each other at a press table and fielded questions about Kennewick Man’s origins, unusually well preserved bones, cause of death, and population affiliation. “We don’t know,” Chatters responded more than once.

Right after the press conference the Umatilla called the Army Corps of Engineers. The tribe’s religious leader, Armand Minthorn, was indignant that one of Kennewick Man’s bone fragments had been sent to California for radiocarbon dating without his permission. Minthorn trusted the radiocarbon date’s accuracy. In his eyes, however, the test was unnecessary and unwarranted. It only confirmed what Minthorn and the tribe had said five weeks earlier when the discovery was made: Kennewick Man was ancient and any ancient skeleton was a tribal ancestor. “Our religion tells us so,” Minthorn said. “Our oral history tells us so. All of those tell us that we were created here. We did not cross any land bridge like the scientists tell us. Our religion tells us we were created here. Period.”

Minthorn and the Umatilla put the corps on notice that other tribes from the Columbia River region were angry too. The Umatilla had mobilized the Yakima, the Wanapum Band of Yakima, and the Colvilles from Washington, as well as the Nez Percé from Idaho. Prior to 1855, they had been united. That year, the United States government divided and renamed them, assigning them to separate geographical land bases in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Today, the five tribes form a confederation. Together, they applied immediate pressure on the Army Corps of Engineers to repatriate Kennewick Man for reburial.

Thursday, August 29

Asked by the corps to attend a meeting with tribal leaders, Chatters arrived flanked by corps archaeologists Ray Tracy and John Leier. They approached the spot where Kennewick Man had surfaced five weeks earlier. Armand Minthorn and four other leaders stood waiting for them. Chatters recognized a couple of them, with whom he had good relations from previous consulting work he had done for their tribes. Lieutenant Colonel Donald Curtis, the commanding officer of the corps office responsible for overseeing the disposition of Kennewick Man, had sent his executive assistant, Lee Turner, to represent the corps’ interests. Tall and adroit, Turner apologized to the tribal leaders for Lieutenant Colonel Curtis’s inability to appear in person.

While Chatters and the corps officials shook hands with Minthorn and the other tribal leaders, two more Umatilla Indians arrived. Chatters recognized one of them immediately—Jeff Van Pelt, the tribe’s cultural resources manager.

Van Pelt immediately criticized Chatters for having a bone sample from Kennewick Man age-tested. He accused Chatters of knowing the remains were Native American.

Turner quickly took control of the meeting by assuring the tribal leaders that he had full authority to speak for the colonel. He then asked to hear from the tribes. Minthorn stepped forward to speak, saying that the remains should not have been disturbed and ought to be immediately reburied.

Turner assured Minthorn that his wishes reflected the colonel’s top priority.

Additionally, Minthorn wanted no further study or publicity around Kennewick Man, to which Turner also offered his assurances.

Chatters bristled at Turner’s willingness to stifle study or publicity and suggested that the U.S. Constitution prohibited the kind of cover-up they were agreeing to. But he suspected that by himself he couldn’t stop them, and suddenly he had second thoughts about not calling Doug Owsley. As soon as he returned from the site to his office, Chatters telephoned the Smithsonian.

“This is Doug.”

Chatters introduced himself and gave Owsley the lowdown on Kennewick Man.

“That’s very interesting,” Doug said. “The morphology you’re describing sounds like a mummified skeleton I just worked on in Nevada at the Nevada State Museum, called the Spirit Cave mummy.”

“Yes, I’m a little familiar with that. I spoke with Amy Dansie at the museum yesterday. She told me about the Spirit Cave mummy and that you had been out there to look at it.”

“What makes Spirit Cave so different is that with Indians you have long faces and short, broad crania,” Owsley said. “But the Spirit Cave mummy has a short face and relatively long cranium, a totally different constellation.”

“Yeah, that’s the way this guy looks,” Chatters said.

Owsley wanted to see it.

“I have a grant to conduct archaic studies in the West. I could probably get my team out there in a few weeks,” Owsley said.

“Ah, I don’t think it’s going to be here that long,” said Chatters, explaining the situation with the Umatilla.

“Well, then why don’t you just ship it here?” Owsley said, explaining that the Smithsonian possessed all the necessary equipment and facilities to measure and photograph Kennewick Man.

Chatters hesitated. “Well, I’m worried about it breaking.”

“Oh, it’ll be fine,” Doug said. “We send skeletons all the time.”

“I’m just not comfortable shipping it,” he said.

“Well, then can you bring it here yourself?” Doug asked.

Chatters explained that he could probably get clearance from the coroner to transport Kennewick Man. But he doubted he could get funding.

“All right. Let me see if I can get approval to fly you out with the skeleton,” Owsley said.

The next day he called Chatters back with a confirmed ticket for Chatters and the skeleton to fly into Washington, D.C., on September 8.