In 1996, two teenagers stumbled across some very old human remains. The struggle to identify them and determine who owns them kicked off a fight that has lasted 20 years — and is finally about to be resolved.
Go to GimletMedia.com/FallSeason to subscribe to Undone and Gimlet’s other new podcasts.
Undone is hosted by Pat Walters.
This episode was produced by Julia DeWitt and Emanuele Berry. Our senior producer is Larissa Anderson.
Editing by Alan Burdick and Catlin Kenney.
Fact checking by Michelle Harris. This episode of Undone was mixed and scored by Bobby Lord. With additional scoring by Nate Sandberg of Plied Sound, and Kevin Sparks
Special thanks to … Jack Hitt, Rosita Worl, Michael Coffey, and Carl Zimmer.
Undone was conceived in collaboration with our friends at Retro Report, the documentary film series that connects iconic news events of the past … to today. You can find them here.
PAT WALTERS: From Gimlet Media, I’m Pat Walters. And this is Undone, a show about how big news stories we thought were over, didn’t really end. Each episode we go back to one and tell you about the surprising things that happened when we weren’t looking.
PETER: Here we go
[Beep, beep, beep, beep]
Last summer I went to this museum in Seattle. It’s called the Burke Museum, and it’s one of the biggest natural history museums in the Pacific Northwest. Has thousands of objects on display. But one of the most important things in the whole place is actually stored away from the public in the basement.
PETER: So I’m taking you down the back staircase. Secret entrance.
One of the curators, a guy named Peter Lape, took me downstairs.
PETER: Ok, we’re now in the basement of the Burke Museum. I can’t show you the exact cabinet he’s in.
At the far end of the room there’s a locker.
PETER: Has these big heavy metal doors.
This part of the room is closed off by a chain-link cage that can only be opened if you get authorization from the US Army.
PETER: There is a bit of a security risk.
And the thing being so fiercely protected here is a skeleton … of a man. He’s been in there for 20 years. And outside the museum a big group of people have been fighting about what should happen to him. They’ve spent years in court trying to decide who this guy is. One side says he could rewrite the history of America. The other says he’s just a guy, their ancestor, and he deserves a proper burial. The museum calls him Kennewick Man.
OK so, let’s start at the beginning.
JACK: Well the whole thing begins in July of 1996. In the Pacific Northwest.
This is Jack Hitt, he’s a writer and radio person, and he’s the one who told me about this in the first place. So Jack says the fight over this skeleton starts in 1996. We’re in Washington State, in this town called Kennewick, which sits beside the Columbia River.
And the town has this park.
JACK: I think it’s called Columbia Park. Two kids are out celebrating these hydroplane
races, right? There were a lot of people out watching these races.
We talked to a local guy named James Chatters about this.
JAMES: Well a couple young men around 20, sneaking into the boat races. And the guys decided they, instead of sneaking through the bushes where it was really too hot, they’d wade through the water.
So they’re walking along, and at one point one of them,
JAMES: Looks down and sees this big round rock.
And thought to himself,
JAMES: Oh boy I’m gonna spook my buddy. I’m gonna pretend this is a skull. He says, hey, dude, come here take a look, this is a human head here.
So he reaches down into the water…
JAMES: Picked it up and turned it upside down and it had teeth.
PAT: He just thought it was a rock, but when he picked it up to pretend it was a skull
flipped it over and then there were teeth on the bottom?
JAMES: Yeah, it had teeth. So, it really was a skull.
These kids had just stumbled across Kennewick Man. They had no idea who he was, or that he would set off this huge fight. At the time, they just knew was he was a dead person, so they called the police, who called the coroner, who called James Chatters.
JAMES: And said, hey, I’ve got some bones for you to look at, have you got some time?
Because James is a forensic anthropologist. And right away he noticed the skeleton looked really old.
JAMES: It was someone from not current, not modern.
Which wasn’t that uncommon in Kennewick; people found old skeletons kind of a lot. And they usually turned out to be Native American. But right away James could tell this skeleton didn’t look like what he was used to seeing.
JAMES: It just looked different. It didn’t have the typical Native American features. It swung more in the direction of European-like features.
So when he got home, James did a scientific analysis of the shape of the skull and concluded that it really didn’t match local Native Americans. So he thought, Maybe it’s a pioneer, like an Oregon-trail-type person from a couple hundred years ago.
To find out more he sent a piece of bone away to a lab.
PAT: Do you remember when and how you found out?
JAMES: Well, just exactly a month later, I got the call, and she said are you sitting down. And I said no. And she said, well, um the date was 8400 years. And then I sat down.
For a small-town archaeologist like James, this was a dream come true. The skeleton would turn out to be even older than he was initially told more than nine thousand years old, which made it one of the oldest, nearly complete human skeletons ever found in North America.
But this only blew up in the national news when James Chatters talked to a reporter and said this one thing. Jack Hitt, the writer we talked to before, says it had to do with the skull.
JACK: He said the shape of it was Caucasoid-like.
JACK: Yeah. I asked a scientist, I asked a Yale anthropologist, what does Caucasoid mean? And he said, well, it’s a fancy way of saying Caucasian. So essentially what Chatters was saying is, we found a white man in North America.
Who is more than nine thousand years old.
And this became a huge story. Because if Kennewick Man was white, it would have meant that white people were here as long as the Native Americans have been.
[60 MINUTES: It was one of those things no one ever doubted. The first people on this continent were the Indians, period…]
JACK: It was huge right? It appeared in almost every magazine I read at that time. The New Yorker. Newsweek.
60 MINUTES: Based on his preliminary research, Jim Chatters speculated that Kennewick Man was probably not an ancestor of the American Indians.
The New York Times ran a story with the headline, “New Answers to an Old Question: Who Got Here First?” The old answer to the old question was of course, the Native Americans came here first. From Asia, around the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago.
But Jack says there have always been white people who say maybe they weren’t here first.
Like maybe it was the Vikings. Or there’s the idea that
JACK: The Solutreans, who lived in where France is now 18,000 years ago, those people got in boats and sailed around the sort of frigid shores of Iceland and Newfoundland and came and settled North America from the East.
These stories are pretty far out on the fringe, not supported by a ton of people. But here was a scientist saying Kennewick Man looked kinda like a white guy.
JACK: Scientific American published some drawings of what they thought Kennewick Man looked like. The guy has a beard, very white skin, he has on this like serape, and he has on a pair of pants.
James Chatters says as this story was exploding he never used the word “white” to describe Kennewick Man, but he did keep using that Caucasoid word. And he did other stuff, too, like, team up with a sculptor friend to make this bust.
JACK: A sculptural representation of what he would think Kennewick Man look like.
And it was a dead ringer for Patrick Stewart on Star Trek. Seriously.
OK, so this whole idea that Kennewick Man looked like a white person was based on James ’s analysis of the shape of his skull. Now, using the shape of a skull to determine the ancestry of a dead person is a pretty standard practice among forensic anthropologists. But trying to match a skull that’s thousands of years old to a present-day group of people can be problematic, because skull shapes can change over time. The other problem with this kind of science is its reputation: the study of skulls, historically, has been very racist. Like, scientists using skull shapes to try to prove one race is superior to another.
So you can imagine how the local Native Americans felt when they heard about all this.
ARMAND: It was, uh it made us very furious.
This is Armand Minthorn.
ARMAND: Member of the confederated tribes of Umatilla, board of trustees.
The Umatilla is one of five local tribes that have lived in the area where Kennewick Man was found, for thousands of years … So the way they saw it, he was their ancestor and he belonged to them. And it wasn’t just that the tribes thought this ancestor of theirs had been stolen from them. They were worried that what happened to him would affect him for the rest of time.
ARMAND: In our tradition, in our culture, in our way of life, when a person, when they’re put in the ground, that’s where they’re to remain until the end of time. If they’re unearthed, it disrupts the spirit of that person.
So the tribes spoke up and said,
ARMAND: Get these remains back in the ground where they belong, as soon as possible.
And this is where the fight over Kennewick Man really kicked off.
The tribes said we want to rebury the remains. James Chatters said: no. We have so much work to do on him, so many questions that we can answer. And a lot of other scientists agreed with him.
DOUG: Kennewick is literally one of those once in a lifetime this will happen. This is an
extremely important discovery.
This is one of them. His name is Doug Owsley.
DOUG: Division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
And Doug said, look, this is one of the oldest skeletons ever found in America. And we know very little about what was happening back then. Like, we know people came over from Asia around the end of the last ice age, but we don’t who was it one group of people? Lots of different groups? How did they live? And, are they related to the people who live here now?
Doug said Kennewick Man can help us answer those questions. Unlike James, Doug never said the skeleton looked Caucasoid. He said he didn’t know who this guy was. And he really wanted to find out.
DOUG: I felt that it would be a tragedy not to take time to listen to this man’s story.
So at this point, Kennewick Man was in the custody of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who owned the park where he was found. When the tribes told the Army Corps that he was theirs, they agreed and decided to turn him to the tribes. But Doug Owsley did not want that to happen. So he and several other scientists got together and filed a lawsuit for the right to study the skeleton. And they all went to court.
Now Jack Hitt, the writer from before, explained that this fight wasn’t just happening over Kennewick Man. Similar ones had been playing out all over the country for years, and finally, in 1990, they resulted in a new federal law.
JACK: NAGPRA, is what it’s ah, what it’s called.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The law said basically that any Native American remains found on federal land, or held in a museum that received federal money, must be returned to the tribe most closely related to them.
And this new law meant a lot to Native Americans.
JACK: It acknowledged the terrible history that non-Native American, Americans have perpetrated on Native Americans, which is that for most of the nineteenth century Native American bodies after death were appropriated by research institutions like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. One estimate puts it at around, that museums in America hold about 200,000 Native American skeletons.
Jack says back in the 1800s people would actually sell Native American bodies to these places.
KIM: They boil them down to bone and they send the bones back East. Our ancestors were treated as if they were subhuman.
This is Kim Tallbear.
KIM: Associate professor in the faculty of Native studies at the University of Alberta.
She’s a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, from the Midwest. And she says this was so common in the late 1800s, that whenever Native Americans buried their family members.
KIM: They would keep watch. You know, they were worried that these bodies were going
to be dug up. That’s how pervasive this was at that time.
Kim experienced this in her own family.
KIM: Yeah, so my four greats grandfather, his name in Dakota was Te-Oyata-Duta, but he was called Little Crow in English.
Little Crow was a famous chief and in 1863, he was shot and killed by a farmer in Minnesota.
KIM: So he gets killed by this farmer.
His body gets dragged through the streets of Hutchinson, Minnesota, he gets decapitated. His body gets you know, degraded.
The white settlers eventually identify him,
KIM: And that’s when his bones were archived by the state of Minnesota for a while.
Like, almost a hundred years. All that time sitting in a box in the Minnesota Historical Society.
KIM: And finally
After a long fight with the society.
KIM: My family got the remains back in 1971.
They had a funeral for him.
KIM: He was buried in our family plot.
Kim says she visits the grave once a year.
So for Kim watching all this go down with Kennewick Man felt familiar. Exactly the thing that NAGPRA, the law meant to return remains to Native families, was designed to stop. And it was because of NAGPRA that the tribes thought, we can win this.
And they were partly right. Kennewick Man did meet one criteria of the law: he was found on federal land, a park owned by the Army. But there’s another part of the law: you have to prove he’s related to your specific group of people.
Doug Owsley and the scientists said, you can’t do that.
There was no DNA evidence; genetic testing had been tried but it was inconclusive. And archaeological evidence only shows the local tribes in that area for the past few thousand years. Before that, scientists aren’t really sure who was there.
This is the argument Doug’s side makes in court.
The tribal side argued scientific evidence isn’t the only kind of evidence.
JACKIE: You know we have oral traditions of people watching the ice age floods.
This is Jackie Cook, an archaeologist with the Colville, one of the other tribes from the area where Kennewick Man was found. The floods she’s talking about would have happened about 11,000 years ago.
JACKIE: Oral traditions of mammoth, that that’s what the people saw.
ARMAND: There’s no written record. There’s no oral histories of non-Native Americans, in this area, 9,200 years ago.
This fight in court went on for a long time. Finally, in 2002, the judge issued a ruling.
ARMAND: Ruled that the Kennewick Man was not Native American, and therefore NAGPRA does not apply.
The judge said not only was Kennewick Man not related to the local tribes, but the way he saw it, the court couldn’t even confirm he was a Native American at all.
ARMAND: It was just unbelievable.
After the break, science answers the question of who Kennewick Man really was.
And then, the story takes an unexpected turn.
PAT WALTERS: So before the break, a judge decided this nine thousand-year-old skeleton might not be a Native American and gave Doug Owsley from the Smithsonian the right to study him. Basically to find out who he really was. So Doug Owsley and a team of other scientists went to the Burke Museum — that museum where he’s locked in the basement now — did their studies and went back to Washington D.C. to write them up.
Meanwhile, the tribes remain certain that Kennewick Man is their ancestor, and a group of elders from the tribes start visiting the skeleton at the Museum.
REX: We gotta talk to him, tell him that we’re there.
This is Rex Buck, he’s an elder with the Wanapum, another local tribe. He says members from five different tribes routinely drove hundreds of miles across the state to visit Kennewick Man and hold ceremonies.
PAT: How often would visits happen?
REX: I would say three or four times a year.
They did this year after year. Always wondering when they’d hear from Doug Owsley, the Smithsonian scientist.
And then finally in 2012, Doug got in touch, said, I have my results and I want to present them to you.
ARMAND: That was a historic meeting when Owsley came out to visit the tribes.
This is Armand Minthorn again. He says he was excited about this visit. He thought Doug had finally figured out what they’d been saying for years was true: that Kennewick Man was their ancestor.
So on October 10th, 2012 sixteen years after Kennewick Man was discovered in that river, Doug Owsley gets up in front of about a hundred tribal members, and tells them what the science has revealed.
DOUG: He was a fairly young man. He’s about 35-40 years of age.
DOUG: We can tell you the man’s weight.
About 160 pounds.
DOUG: You can tell that he’s right-handed.
From marks that our muscles leave on our bones as we use them throughout our lives.
DOUG: You can tell that his left leg is stronger than his right, for instance.
It’s all very cool stuff.
DOUG: He’s a short-distance runner capable of very fast pivots.
He’s been injured a lot.
DOUG: He’s pretty banged up, fractures. Five ribs on the right side, there’s another rib
on the left side.
And eventually he gets to the conclusion everybody was waiting for. He says,
DOUG: Kennewick Man is not from that area.
In other words, he’s not your ancestor.
DOUG: He’s coming from somewhere else.
Here’s how he figured it out. Turns out your bones contain a record of what you eat. There’s this isotope in nature called nitrogen-15, it’s in pretty much everything, and whenever you eat stuff it accumulates in your bones. So the higher you are on the food chain, the more nitrogen-15 you’ll have in your bones.
DOUG: You’ve got the plants, you’ve got the rabbit that eats the plants, then you’ve got the fox that eats the rabbits and every time you’re going up it tends to concentrate the nitrogen-15 value.
So you can use the quantity of nitrogen-15 in a skeleton to find out where it was in the food chain, and therefore what it was eating. Kennewick Man’s nitrogen-15 value was really high. Meaning he was high on the food chain. So high that he would have had to be eating mostly meat. And, mostly meat from animals that were eating other meat. So not deer. Or elk. Something higher than that.
DOUG: And what we came to realize is that Kennewick Man is heavily dependent on a marine diet that’s based on seal-mammal hunting.
Which was surprising because there are no seals in Kennewick, never really have been.
DOUG: And so you’re just not going to get that diet at all if he was born and raised in the Columbia Basin.
PAT: Like in order for him to have that nitrogen level, he would have had to be — he couldn’t have just been eating salmon all the time?
DOUG: No, couldn’t do it.
PAT: Even if there was like, way more salmon than there is now?
DOUG: Not eating salmon 24/7. You just couldn’t do it.
Based on that and a bunch of other data, Doug concluded Kennewick Man lived way north of the locals tribes. His ancestors had likely come from Asia and he’d lived most of his life in the Arctic. When he died in Kennewick, Owsley said, he was just passing through.
Which meant: the local tribes had no claim to him.
And he’d stay in the Burke Museum, so that more science could be done on him in the future.
PAT: Did that come as a surprise to you?
ARMAND: It came as a big surprise.
After Owsley left that day, Rex Buck remembers trying to console a friend.
REX: She would just break down and cry with tears and say it was like her grandfather.
PAT: Do you feel that way about him?
REX: Yes, I feel he should be treated with the biggest and highest respect. And how come we’re cutting him up and we’re doing all these things, and we’ve done so much. Why can’t we just put him away now?
And when you think about it, Doug did his studies — a lot of them. His book on Kennewick Man is 700 pages long. And despite all those studies, what he learned didn’t drastically change what we know about how people came to North America.
So, it kinda seems like, at this point, it would be ok to return Kennewick Man to the tribes.
PAT: Do you think at this point he could go back?
DOUG: Well, I think we need to look at our ending conclusions and talk about the studies that I really feel still need to be done, because there were things we applied to the Corps of engineers to do…
He basically says no. He wants more studies to be done.
PAT: So I guess it’s like, I think the tribes would say, but a lot’s been taken from us, and so why does …
DOUG: Well, and that makes things, certainly I would agree that there’s been very harsh history, and I certainly don’t want to add to that. I would rather like the thought that the information to be gained is of value to everybody, including tribal members in that area. And so if we could have somehow met in the middle.
PAT: But don’t you think that maybe saying, ok yes we could do more science, but we’ve done enough would be a kind of meeting in the middle and you’re shaking your head you don’t want to answer…
DOUG: I won’t answer that. Cause I want to see the studies done.
PAT: I mean, that’s an answer. I mean,
DOUG: I think, um, there are some important things that still need to be done.
After talking to Doug for a couple hours, I started realize that the way he sees it, he isn’t just defending the right to study Kennewick Man more, he’s defending the right to study all kinds of really old human remains. Remains that might help tell the story not just of one group of people, but of all of humanity. At a certain point, he says, a skeleton just becomes so old that it sort of belongs to all of us.
But Kim Tallbear, the Native American studies professor we talked to before, sees two big problems with that stance.
First, she says,
KIM: Why does the scientist get the final say, on who’s related to whom, what forms of relation count, and therefore what should happen with the remains. I mean, who made them God? Why do they get to adjudicate the truth all the time?
And you could say, like why not? Scientists are supposed to be impartial. But Kim’s experience and the experience of lots of Native people is that scientists aren’t always impartial.
And second, she told me it doesn’t have to be a zero sum situation: like science or respect the wishes of tribes.
KIM: It’s not that people aren’t interested in what the science will yield, they just don’t want science to occur in these really kind of undemocratic, oppressive ways.
They want non-Native scientists to accept that science isn’t the only way to look at the world, and when science does seem necessary, to invite Native scientists to conduct it, or at least to collaborate on it.
And just last year, that kind of collaboration Kim is talking about happened with Kennewick Man, because of this guy
ESKE: I’m Eske Willerslev, professor here at University of Copenhagen Denmark.
Willerslev is an expert on extracting DNA from really old bones. And when he heard DNA hadn’t been done successfully on Kennewick Man, he decided he wanted to try. The technology had come a really long way.
But one of the first things he did was call the local tribes.
ESKE: I talked to them and …
JACKIE: He made the great effort of coming to meet with the claimant tribes.
That’s Jackie Cook again, local tribal archaeologist.
ESKE: We had several meetings, and then I asked them whether any of them would be interested to provide DNA for comparison.
One of the local tribes, the Colville, agreed.
ESKE: So we sent them saliva containers and they themselves collected the saliva of tribal members.
Eske then compared the DNA from Kennewick Man to the DNA of those local tribal members, as well as DNA from people all over the world; Europeans, Asian people and several other groups of Native Americans. And before announcing his results, he invited several tribal members to Denmark.
ARMAND: Told us, come here to see my laboratory.
Armand Minthorn was one of them.
Eske showed them around. Explained the research.
ESKE: So they could get a notion of the type of work we’re doing.
And then he told them what he’d found.
ESKE: The genome sequence very clearly showed that Kennewick Man is closer related to Native Americans than to any other contemporary populations in the world.
Meaning, according to the DNA, Kennewick Man was their ancestor.
After that Eske told Armand he wanted to show him something …
ARMAND: We went into a room and he brought out from a glass case, a small glass tube. At the bottom it was filled with a liquid, a clear liquid. And he held it up and he said, this is the Kennewick Man’s DNA. It was unbelievable, to actually hold our ancestor’s DNA. To actually be a part of it.
PAT: Do you remember specifically, what, like was there a thought in your mind? Like what was happening inside your head?
ARMAND: We’re gonna bring you home. We’re gonna bring you home.
Doug Owsley from the Smithsonian disputes the results, says there isn’t enough Native American DNA publicly available to match Kennewick Man specifically to the local tribes. It’s up to the federal government to decide what happens next.
In April they officially reclassified Kennewick Man as a Native American, and reopened the tribes’ NAGPRA claim. And then, just as we were finishing up this story, the whole thing got resolved. Almost, anyway.
What happened is a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers from Oregon and Washington added an amendment to a natural resources bill that would require the return of Kennewick Man to the local tribes. And it passed. Both houses. All that needs to happen now is for the House and the Senate to reconcile the bill. And for the President to sign it. Like I said, almost resolved.
In the meantime, Kennewick Man stays in the Burke Museum.
The tribes still visit every few months.
When I went to the Burke to see the place where Kennewick Man is kept, I found out the tribes had been there that very morning. Rex Buck, one of the elders we heard from before, told me about it later.
REX: 15, 20 of us, crammed here and there. What happens is we’re gonna sing seven songs. Anybody who has something that they feel, then they talk. We all raise our hands to be a part of him on that day, and him a part of us.
Armand says everyone in the tribes is looking forward to the day they can stop having these ceremonies in the basement.
ARMAND: We already know where we’re going to rebury the Kennewick Man.
The tribes have agreed on a place together. Its location is a secret.
Undone is hosted and produced by me Pat Walters, along with Julia DeWitt and Emanuele Berry. Our senior producer is Larissa Anderson. We are edited by Alan Burdick and Caitlin Kenney.
Special thanks to Jack Hitt, Rosita Worl, Michael Coffey, and Carl Zimmer
Undone was conceived in collaboration with our friends at Retro Report, the documentary film series that connects iconic news events of the past to today. You can find them at retro report dot org.
Undone is mixed and scored by Bobby Lord. Additional music by Matt Boll.
Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.
If you want to get in touch, follow us on twitter @undoneshow or e-mail us at undone@ at gimletmedia dot .com.
You can subscribe to Undone on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, and if you like what you heard, please write a review — it really helps a lot. We’ll have a new episode next week. See you then.
Before we go, one last thing from Jack Hitt.
A quick description of his favorite 19th century American archaeologist.
JACK: A freelance amateur scientist named George McJunkin, who was a freed slave who taught himself astronomy and archaeology and spent his whole life on his horse out west. He carried a telescope in his rifle holster on his horse.