In a climate-controlled vault deep in a Tri-Cities laboratory, a pagan priest prayed Wednesday over a 9,000-year-old skeleton that’s sparked a clash between science and religion.
Stephen McNallen wore a heavy robe and held a horn filled with mead as he sermonized about the nature of pre-Christian deities.
“The holy powers always were. The gods and goddesses did not spring into existence the day before the Viking Age,” he said, standing at an altar with a bust of Odin, the Norse father of the gods. “They have a message to us. I do not know what that message is. Our job is to listen.”
McNallen’s organization, called Asatru, is only the latest religious group allowed access to the remains known as Kennewick Man. Five different Native American groups already have performed separate religious ceremonies over the bones.
The pagans, the Native Americans and a group of anthropologists are embroiled in a legal tug-of-war over ownership of the bones. Caught in the middle is the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the land where the remains were discovered.
Asatru, based in Nevada City, Calif., sides with scientists who insist that studying Kennewick Man can glean insights into the first humans in the New World.
Native Americans - who say their sacred lands have been desecrated for years by scientists and the dominant white culture - want to bury the remains as soon as possible.
It will be up to a federal judge to decide who owns the bones.
The remains were discovered in 1996 in shallow water by two college students watching the hydroplane races.
Police officers and the county coroner asked anthropologist James Chatters to examine the remains. Noting several features similar to Caucasoid ancestors of Europeans rather than Mongoloid ancestors of Native Americans, Chatters said he initially thought the man was a 19th century pioneer.
He sent a bone from Kennewick Man’s little finger to a California laboratory for testing after a fellow anthropologist noted that a spearhead embedded in the pelvis looked to be from a different period.
Carbon dating determined the remains were roughly 9,300 years old, making it one of the oldest skeletons ever found in America.
DNA testing on the pinky bone was halted by the Corps of Engineers after the tribes complained.
After learning the antiquity of Kennewick Man, the corps determined he belonged to Native Americans and was covered by a 1990 federal law that orders all artifacts and remains be returned to their respective tribes.
Armand Minthorn, of the Umatillas, said his tribe wanted to immediately bury the bones, as his ancestors taught.
Archaeologists banded together and filed a lawsuit in Portland, saying the skeleton is so old it cannot possibly be connected to a modern-day tribe. By burying it, they argued that science would miss a rare opportunity to look into the ancient past.
Minthorn wrote in a position paper that his tribe’s oral history says Indians were part of this land since Creation, thus the remains must be Native American.
Five groups, the Umatillas, the Yakamas, the Confederated Colville Tribes, the Nez Perce and Wanapum jointly filed a claim to the bones.
McNallen and his group Asatru also filed a claim and later joined the lawsuit. They said that if Kennewick Man is Caucasoid, they have as much religious claim to the bones as the tribes. He furthered the controversy Wednesday by performing a second ceremony at the site of the discovery, despite a late request from the Umatillas not to perform a Viking ceremony on an Indian burial ground.
About a dozen members of Asatru (pronounced uh-sa’-tru) repeated their ceremony to honor Kennewick Man, then performed a ritual that honored the god Odin.
Asatru’s lawyer, Michael Clinton, said he had been in contact with the Umatilla Tribe last week hoping to avoid controversy.
But the request to stay off the ancient grounds only came Wednesday morning, and McNallen already had promised reporters who were not allowed into the vault an opportunity for pictures.
Asatru is the revival of the pre-Christian religion practiced by the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe during the Viking Age, roughly the 8th to 11th centuries.
The idea that earlier races could have predated the Indians is contradictory and offensive, said Minthorn of the Umatilla Tribe said. It also opens a can of worms for some people in terms of race relations, and who has legitimate ownership of certain lands.
In deciding who gets the skeleton, the judge will essentially have to determine which belief system is protected by the law and better serves the public.
But compromises are possible, said Adele Fredin, head of the history and archaeology department for the Confederated Colville Tribes. She said her organization has participated in non-intrusive studies of remains, before performing religious ceremonies and reburying unearthed bodies.
She said science need not contradict their oral traditions. Most of the time it enhances them, she said.
“That’s one means of understanding our own history,” she said. “And it sometimes lends authenticity to our story when it comes to outsiders.”
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