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Katherine Kirkpatrick

Writing Mysterious Bones: The Story of Kennewick Man

“In July 2005, hand in hand with my four-year-old twins, I entered a day of excitement at the Burke Museum in Seattle. A group of scientists had converged from around the country to study a prehistoric skeleton known as Kennewick Man. Many more visitors than usual packed the small, normally quiet, university museum. The official guests wore badges that gave them access to the secret goings-on in a restricted area of the museum’s lower levels. Curious about the scientists’ investigations, wondering what scientists do when they study ancient bones, I wished I could have watched them at their work.

“I had been following articles about Kennewick Man in our Seattle newspapers and already had a children’s book in mind. I knew that the skeleton found in the eastern part of our state was nearly 10,000 years old and still carried, piercing its pelvis, a stone spearpoint. I was aware that Native Americans claimed rights to the skeleton and sought to give him a traditional burial. Until then, I hadn’t paid much attention to the controversy. Instead, the mysteries of early peoples and long-lost cultures were the lures that drew me to Kennewick Man. I began researching.

“About a year later, after selling a proposal on the topic to my publisher Holiday House, by chance I met a Burke Museum archaeologist. My twins and her oldest child entered kindergarten as classmates in the same school. She is the scientist in charge of giving Kennewick Man bi-annual check-ups on his care and condition. Over time a trust between us developed and she generously agreed to serve as gatekeeper for my project, pointing me toward sources of information and introducing me to helpful experts.

“Also by good fortune, my sister, who had worked for National Geographic for more than twenty years, found time to fly out to Seattle from Washington, D.C. and help me interview people. At the home of archaeologist Jim Chatters, the discoverer of Kennewick Man, we spent a fascinating day examining prehistoric spearpoints, scrapers and other tools from the hidden past. Chatters even showed us casts of skulls, some surprisingly realistic in their discoloration.

“Researching the book got off to such a good start that I could not have seen the curving roads, peaks and valleys I’d encounter in what became a five-year odyssey. I did not know that I would set my work down and start over, then start over again, writing three entirely different manuscripts. It would take that much time and effort for the sheer complexity of the issues to reveal itself, and for me to find paths toward clarity.

“In June 2008, about six months after my initial interviews, I was close to completing a first draft. I sent the writing to a Native American, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, who is also an archeologist. She respectfully answered that the manuscript failed entirely to present the Native American point of view. She then agreed for me to confer with her and a religious leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Both had been active in tribal efforts to repatriate the skeleton. A friend and I drove across the Cascade Mountains to eastern Washington to meet them.

“In that context, our encounter at first was awkward. However, I learned much during our conversations, and that day offered unexpected revelations. Our meeting place, in Richland, Washington, turned out to be next door to the Battelle facility where the skeleton was housed during the early years of legal action. That afternoon, the Umatilla religious leader took us to the see the spot in nearby Kennewick’s Columbia Park where the skeleton washed up in the river. As the greatest gift, he invited me to July 4th and related festivities featuring drumming and regalia (not open to the general public) at his reservation. So several weeks later, my family and I visited the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, in Pendleton, Oregon. We were warmly received for a most enjoyable and memorable round of celebrations.

“Moving forward now another eight months, it’s possible to sum up what I learned from Native American contacts, journeys to the Columbia Plateau in Eastern Washington and Oregon, phone calls, reviews of drafts, and e-mails.

“First, the Native Americans of the Plateau live on reservations that lie within or very close to their ancestral homelands. This is not the case in many parts of the United States. The Algonkian peoples, for example, who lived in the area where I grew up on Long Island, New York, were relocated numerous times by the United States government before ending up in Oklahoma. In contrast, tribes such as the Umatilla still inhabit the region where they grew and kept alive their culture over thousands of years. Strong emotional bonds continue to merge the Plateau tribes with the land; and in most cases the tribes have legal ties to it as well, such as rights for hunting and fishing.

“Second, repatriation of ancestors is a sensitive and painful subject for the Plateau tribes. They feel this way not only because of their religious practice, but because they’ve been forced to bear massive lootings of their dead. Grave thefts didn’t end in the 1800s or early 1900s, when lack of awareness of Native American rights was rampant. Elders on the Reservations can tell of specific incidents of desecration that occurred in the 1940s, 1950s, and more recently. Some looted burial places belonged to deceased people they knew and remembered.

“While professional archaeology is vastly different from grave robbing, it is not surprising that the distinctions are blurred for many Native Americans. The controversy over Kennewick Man (the Ancient One), for them, grew out of a particularly painful history with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During the mid-20th century, federal hydropower dams orchestrated by the Corps divided the wild Columbia River into a series of stagnant bodies of water. These projects created farmland and generated electricity in the Plateau states, but devastated the tribes both spiritually and economically. Among other destruction, the dams decimated salmon runs. And the widening of river channels exposed tribal burial grounds and cemeteries of all time-periods, ancient and modern, to damage. (Changes in the river may have helped force Kennewick Man’s skeleton from the ground.)

“The government did commission archaeologists to excavate lands that were about to be flooded, and the scientists took away grave contents to keep them from being destroyed. I believe that most if not all of these archaeologists acted with good intentions. But among the Plateau tribes, deep resentment lingers over the excavations and removals. Some of these situations clearly were not handled well, nor were the tribes always consulted. As a result, decades later, the custody of human remains and many thousands of artifacts are still contested.

“Third, NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Repatriation Act) classifies any remains dated earlier than 1492 as Native American. Hence, “white” lawmakers in Washington, D.C. created an arbitrary definition of Native American. It’s easy for me to see why many Native Americans see injustice when non-tribal attorneys and scientists change the definition seemingly to suit their purposes. For many native people of the Plateau, the ruling by Judge John Jelderks that according to NAGPRA Kennewick Man isn’t Native American, appeared manipulative, if not deceitful. “Can’t we all openly acknowledge what is right in front of us?” they say. “This ancient man was indigenous to the land and obviously native.” (Yes, I agree, of course the Ancient One was a Native American.)

“I’ve read all seventy pages of NAGPRA, and muddled my way through an even longer legal document, Jelderks’ decision. I believe the judge performed the job he was given, which was to interpret the specifics of the law as it was written and intended to be carried out. He wasn’t scientifically determining the skeleton’s race. When the average person (including myself) says the words “Native American,” they have a different, more general meaning from the legal definition. Granted, it can be very confusing. Apparently almost no one in the general public has a good grasp of the court case, which is not surprising since the great majority of newspaper and magazine articles on the subject are inaccurate and misleading.

“My conclusion, following the arguments of a number of legal experts, is that the NAGPRA law contains shortcomings. There really is no provision in NAGPRA telling us what to do if a skeleton cannot be identified as affiliated with a modern group. The plaintiff scientists in the case were not ghouls or body stealers; they'd have had no reason to go to court if the law provided a way for scientists to study remains before they entered the permanent custody of a Native group. The Kennewick Man trial would never have made its way to a courtroom if NAGPRA had the balance of Australian law, which mandates that all parties, native and scientific, take part in how remains are treated.

“I’ve also come to believe, despite my zeal for archaeology, despite the-needle-in-the-haystack rarity of Kennewick Man’s discovery, despite the scientific value of studying the dead, that native peoples should have the final say in decisions of repatriation of all native skeletons. To me, this means ancient skeletons as well as modern ones, although I certainly understand the counter-arguments. The case reminds me of why I’m glad to be an educator and not a lawyer or politician.

“To return to making the book: while embarking on a completely new draft, I verified tribal members’ stories with repatriation data registered on the NAGPRA website. Reading through numerous museum inventories, I began to grasp the scope of Native American grave desecrations in this country. I went back to the Burke Museum with new questions. It came as a surprise to me that the work of creating these inventories, filing reports, and repatriating remains and grave objects under NAGPRA kept two staff members intently focused full time.

“What I read also caused me to reflect on interning at the Smithsonian Institution. It was when I was in college, during a summer in the 1980s. I worked for an astronomer, so my duties were not to handle or study human remains. However, an anthropology intern at the National Museum of Natural History showed me storage areas, where he pulled open giant drawers. They contained hundreds of skulls, neatly arranged like fruits in packing crates. The questions I didn't bring up at the time, but ask myself now are: Who were these people? Were they Native Americans? When were they collected? How, by whom, and for what purpose?

“It’s very possible the skulls stored there were legitimately acquired; if not, they’ve no doubt been returned to appropriate custodians since the passing of NAGPRA. What strikes me is my own casual assumption that the skulls were there simply because that’s what physical anthropologists do—study artifacts and bones. If I were Native American, I might have reacted differently.

“Also, during this most recent round of my research, I looked again at numerous children’s books that featured archaeological subjects such as Pompeii, the Ice Man, Egyptian mummies, and an Arctic shipwreck. The books carried photos that many Native Americans might find offensive—and to my surprise, certain of the images now bothered me, too. There were books on my shelves that I decided to give away. When talking about Kennewick Man, Native Americans often use the word “respect.” I began to see that while many publications represented the dead in a respectful way, others ran on a fine line between nonfiction and Halloween.

“With these impressions still in mind, I returned to the Kennewick Man revision. In my second major draft, I thought I’d done a pretty good job of conveying the Native American point of view. But I'd angered members of the archaeological community, who said the version skewed facts and distorted the issues. It neglected to point out, one said, some basic and obvious arguments on the side of the plaintiff scientists: namely, that Kennewick Man is so old he can’t possibly be affiliated with any modern-day group. The tribes may think they are related to this ancient skeleton, but are they? How could they know, if no continuous evidence links them? What’s more, if the most conservatively minded Native Americans get their way in court, all ancient American skeletons will be reburied without study—and all knowledge science could gain from them would be lost.

“At this stage, nearly four years into researching and writing I wasn’t sure I wanted to begin the book anew. Then, what came next were yet more surprising turns in the road. The editor did not think the draft was biased toward any parties; she rejected the manuscript on an entirely different basis. She felt I’d become bogged down in telling parts of the story no child would likely want to read. On the other hand, young readers would want to know all about the ancient man with the spearpoint embedded in his hip. Could I find the initial impulse that inspired me to write the book? Didn’t that interesting prehistoric man deserve to have his story told? And equally important, could I reduce the text to leave room for illustrations?

“So I began draft number three, which has been the basis for all subsequent revisions. I didn’t change any fundamental information. Instead, I cut and condensed, working to strike a balance between the archaeological views and the news event. As a result, visuals have assumed increasing importance as the book came together. It contains renderings but no photographs, a deliberate choice out of respect for Native American custom and religious beliefs. Of course, many tribal members would prefer there be no publication in the first place, especially a children’s book, about a Native dead ancestor. I acknowledge their traditional and personal concerns, and have done my utmost to present this challenging topic in respectful and appreciative ways.

“The sidebars have turned out to be as important as the main text. They were designed to present as many viewpoints as possible, from Native Americans of related but varied tribal backgrounds to scientists in different specialties. Readers may find what appear, at first, to be contradictions, as well as some overlapping information. What I hope to show is that no hard and fast set of answers can be called up for a topic as multi-faceted as Kennewick Man. Even experts in the same field often do not agree on what they see, or go about their studies in the same way. Science is just as fluid as any other discipline.

“Above all, I hope the book will stimulate readers to think about the discovery of this ancient human—in a way, an ancestor of us all—and discuss the depth of concern he has raised in so many people. It seems that Kennewick Man’s story and those of the scientists and Native Americans have many values, along with facts, to teach us. Indeed, I believe it is through writing and talking about discoveries like this, which help us reach to deeper levels of knowledge, that we can ultimately come to mutual understandings and solve many of the problems in our world.

“What else have I learned from writing this book? I’ll give two quotes from the painter Audrey Flack in her book Art and Soul: “You can’t please everyone” and “You cannot get where you’re going before you are meant to be there.” She also says that when an artist makes a mistake in an oil painting, and brushes over it, what led to the change becomes part of the finished work. I think the same is true with my book. Even starting several times with a new canvas, the book that was originally there in some way remains. I was allowed to see the world at least in part with the eyes of diverse people who were each strong in their principles. All my own struggles in coming to terms with a difficult and controversial subject, one that stirred us all to the core, ultimately defined the book.”

—From the official website of Katherine Kirkpatrick, used by permission.

Katherine Kirkpatrick is the author of fiction and nonfiction books for young readers, all reflecting her fascination with history. These include Mysterious Bones: The Story of Kennewick Man illustrated by Emma Stevenson, The Snow Baby: The Arctic Childhood of Robert E. Peary's Daring Daughter, and Redcoats and Petticoats illustrated by Ronald Himler. A former children's book editor and now a full-time writer, she lives with her family in Seattle, Washington, and is a frequent visitor to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the current home of Kennewick Man's bones.

Books by Katherine Kirkpatrick

Mysterious Bones: The Story of Kennewick Man, Reinforced