Scientists have been blocked from studying a 9,300-year-old skeleton known as Kennewick Man, but Northwest Indian tribes quietly have gained access to hold religious observances.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials recently acknowledged that tribal members have been allowed five times into the secure, climate-controlled repository room at the Battelle Pacific Northwest National laboratory in Richland, Wash.
Scientists who have sued for the right to study the old bones were surprised to learn of the American Indian visits, and said the revelation might bear on their federal case.
“This is just another demonstration that the Army corps has decided that the skeleton is Native American without a scientific study,” said Alan Schneider, the scientists’ attorney. “It’s just more evidence they’ve had a preconceived conclusion about Kennewick Man that they reached last September.”
An attorney for a small nontribal religious group that has sued the corps over the bones said he was shocked to hear of the tribal access.
“For them not to have notified the court or even given us the same opportunity is just outrageous,” said attorney Michael Clinton, who represents the Asatru Folk Assembly.
“This is just another example of the unequal treatment they’ve been meting out to my client.”
Clinton said he planned to file a complaint to the federal court about the visits.
Kennewick Man was discovered a year ago this week along the Columbia River near Kennewick.
The corps initially decided to turn the bones over to the tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
But eight prominent anthropologists and the Asatru filed separate lawsuits in federal court.
They claim the skeleton bears caucasian features and should be studied to determine its ancestry.
Last month, U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks put the lawsuit on hold and sent the matter back to the corps for review. He earlier allowed the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and Nez Perce tribes to join the lawsuit as interested parties.
September through April, various tribal representatives visited the remains five times. On three of the visits, tribe members held a spiritual observance.
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