The Kennewick Man Revealed Ambiguities in NAGPRA


A model of Kennewick Man’s head was carefully sculpted in clay based off of the shape of his skull and pictures of the Ainu people archaeologists believe are his closest living relatives.

After the devastation of smallpox and being more or less forced onto small reservations by the American Government, Native Americans found themselves basically ignored by the Europeans inhabiting their old lands.  Anthropologists treated their dead like the remains of some extinct culture, displaying skeletons in museums without any regard for the bones’ living ancestors’ wishes (Pearson, 1999).  It took decades of protests by groups such as The American Indian Movement and American Indians Against Desecration to get legislation passed protecting Native American remains: the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, passed in 1990 (Pearson, 1999).  However, just as tensions had begun to settle, the Kennewick Man pitted Native Americans and anthropologists against each other in a very public (and bitter) custody battle that revealed several inadequacies in NAGPRA.

The Kennewick Man is the body of a man who lived over 9,000 years ago, found in a (federally owned) Washington river bank by two college students in 1996 (Preston, 2014).  The American Government confiscated the skeleton almost immediately after a local anthropologist dated them.  The U.S. nearly handed the remains to the Umatilla tribe (in order to honor NAGPRA), but eight anthropologists banded together to file a lawsuit stopping the action (Watkins, 2004).  About ten years later, the bones were examined for sixteen days before going back into storage, this time at the Burke Museum (Preston, 2014).  In 2004 it was ruled that Kennewick Man was not Native American, and therefore did not need to be returned to a tribe for reburial (Burke Museum, 2015).  The Burke Museum has since kept the remains in customized storage containers and has allowed several (approved) visits from scientists and tribes alike (Burke Museum, 2015).


One of the many scientists who worked on Kennewick Man during the brief period of study carefully arranges his skull.

Scientists essentially decided the Kennewick Man remains were too ancient to be Native American (Watkins, 2004).  Anthropologists claimed Kennewick Man’s skeleton did not resemble Native Americans’ body structure enough.  Additionally, even though Kennewick Man was found on what was once Umatilla territory, scientists said they could not prove the Umatilla had been in that area 9,000 years ago.  Therefore, the remains were not exclusively on any tribe’s territory (Watkins, 2004).  Though it is not the only problem in NAGPRA, one of the most obvious inadequacies brought to light by Kennewick Man is that Congress did not specify how old is too old for NAGPRA to apply.

In order to fix this, Congress must decide whether to define the limit in biological terms or in terms of tribes’ oral histories—cultural terms (Watkins, 2004).  The solution to this is more complicated than it seems, however.  Native Americans’ oral histories do not coincide with anthropological history, but NAGPRA accepts oral history as valid evidence of tribes’ cultural affiliation with remains (Watkins, 2004).  Therefore, why should a biological line be drawn to differentiate how ancient is too ancient, as is the case with the Kennewick Man?  On the other hand, oral histories vary from tribe to tribe.  Science would be an objective way to mark the difference.  However, differentiating the race of remains by bone structure is sketchy business.  It can come down to something as simple as a different skull shape.  For many Native Americans, the fact that he lived on American land is enough to prove his cultural heritage.


Kennewick Man’s skull.

The Kennewick Man case can be seen as a case of Native Americans taking a reasonable right—the right to keep their ancestors’ bodies respected and honored according to their culture—too far.  After all, the Kennewick Man is one of the most complete skeletons anthropologists have from his time period (Preston, 2014).  The need to study it seems obvious and necessary.

However, things are not so simple.  NAGPRA’s purpose is to give Native Americans control over their ancestors’ bodies.  The Kennewick Man case showed how difficult it is to prove cultural affiliation in bodies that old.  Regardless of who should have received custody of Kennewick man, this case shows that NAGPRA still needs to be improved.



Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture (2015). Kennewick Man/The Ancient One. Retrieved from

Pearson, M. (1999). The Politics of the Dead. In The Archaeology of Death and Burial (pp. 171-192). College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press.

Preston, D. (2014, September). The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from

Watkins, J. (2004). Becoming American or Becoming Indian?: NAGPRA, Kennewick and Cultural Affiliation. Journal of Social Archaeology, 4(1), 60-80. Retrieved April 10, 2015, from Sage Journals. DOI: 10.1177/1469605304039850



Clark, C. [Online Image]. Retrieved April 16, 2015, from

Delin, G. [Online Image]. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from

Tatchell, B. [Online Image]. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from


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