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Legal Troubles Disillusion Archaeologist Scientist Embroiled In Battle Over Who Gets To Keep Ancient Remains

In the year since he became embroiled in the controversy over the 9,000-year-old bones of Kennewick Man, archaeologist James Chatters has become disillusioned.

“What should be an exciting time for everyone has become a game for lawyers,” Chatters said. “I’d rather do my science, but that’s not how it works anymore.”

Chatters, 48, was one of the first to study the ancient human remains discovered last summer along the Columbia River. Now he is a key figure in a legal battle over who should keep the remains.

After being subpoenaed to testify about his part in the discovery of Kennewick Man, Chatters pleaded the Fifth Amendment early this month. He said he feared the federal government was trying to set him up for criminal prosecution.

“I didn’t do anything wrong. I followed the rules, and I did as the (Army Corps of Engineers) asked me to as we went along,” Chatters said Thursday.

Chatters submitted an affidavit that said he did not want to testify against himself. He fears being sued for alleged violations of the Archaeological Resource Protection Act and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Violators of the resource protection act can get up to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

A judge rejected Chatters’ action and ordered him to give a deposition Wednesday in Kennewick.

The Corps of Engineers wants to gather information to complete the record, said Dutch Meier, spokesman for the corps’ Walla Walla district. The agency, which has custody of Kennewick Man, does not want to press charges, he said.

But it’s too early to speculate on what the corps or the Department of Justice will do in the future, he said.

Chatters’ attorney, James Egan of Kennewick, believes the federal government is trying to discredit Chatters in a legal battle in which eight other archaeologists are seeking permission to study the ancient remains.

Chatters was called to assist Benton County Coroner Floyd Johnson after the remains were found by two youths during last summer’s hydroplane races in the Tri-Cities. At first, Chatters thought the skeleton belonged to a Kennewick pioneer.

But carbon dating placed the remains at about 9,000 years old - and started a controversy about the skeleton’s race.

Some Indian tribes contended the skeleton was that of an ancestor. A coalition of five Indian tribes is trying to have the remains immediately buried, in accordance with ancient traditions and religious beliefs. The tribes are the Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, Wanapum and Colville.

Others contend the skeleton may not be from an Indian, and want additional time to study the remains.

Tags: Indian