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


Smallpox Epidemic of 1837-1838

File:CM Russell When Blackfoot And Sioux Meet.jpeg

An artist’s depiction of a battle between Sioux and Blackfeet warriors

In 1837, the fur trade brought smallpox to the Great Plains. The subsequent epidemic left the Native American population decimated and the land war-torn. The disease left hundreds dead, upset the balance of power between tribes, and cast doubts on many of the tribes’ ways of life (Owsley, 1994).

The horticulturally-based tribes were most strongly affected by the epidemic, as the disease could spread rapidly through a village. Nomadic tribes, which also tended to be smaller, would often split up and disperse at the first sign of disease. These differences in settlement and movement patterns, along with selective vaccination (which occurred primarily in the southern Missouri), led to inconsistencies in how severely a given tribe was hit by the disease. This in turn led to changes in the balance of power between tribes. The once powerful horticulturally-based villages were now vulnerable to attacks by nomadic tribes, notably the Sioux tribe of southern Missouri (Owsley, 1994).

A Gros Ventres camp in Upper Missouri

As we discussed in class, human beings have a nearly universal fear of death. Around the world and throughout time, people have looked for ways to calm the fear that death inspires (van Gennep, 1960). In the case of Native Americans, European diseases were especially terrifying. Not understanding the communicability or cause of disease, most tribes attributed spiritual causes to these deaths (Ewers, 1958).

One of the nomadic Blackfeet tribes saw smallpox destroy a village that it was raiding, and attributed these deaths to the actions of a bad spirit. After returning home with the village’s spoils, smallpox broke out among them and the Blackfeet people assumed that the Good Spirit had abandoned them. In desperation, they made sacrifices of sacred objects in an attempt to placate the evil spirit (Ewers, 1958). Another tribe, the Skidi Pawnee, attributed the smallpox deaths to the Morning Star. In an effort to prevent more death, a young Sioux girl was kidnapped and sacrificed (Weltfish, 1965).

File:Ancient sick native american.jpg

A medicine man tending a patient

The Gros Ventre tribe also believed that smallpox was caused by a malevolent spirit. Atsa causes epidemics of smallpox, measles, and chickenpox. He is often associated with solar eclipses, a very ill omen among the Gros Ventre. The tribe never made offerings to Atsa; instead when disease struck, the people implored the Supreme Being to take Atsa away (Cooper, 1957).

Traditionally, medicine men handled the treatment of disease among Native Americans. These individuals relied on very specific formulas containing medicinal herbs and roots. Among the Omaha tribe, the knowledge of these plants and the accompanying songs was distinctly a spiritual matter (Fletcher, 1911). The actions of the medicine men in Pawnee culture were similarly tied to the Pawnee religion. Therefore, when smallpox and other European diseases that the medicine men could not cope with began to plague the tribe, the Pawnee’s entire belief system came under scrutiny (Wishart, 1979).


Cooper, J. M. (John M., & Flannery, R. (1957). Gros Ventres Of Montana: Part 2, Religion And Ritual. Catholic University Of America. Anthropological Series. Washington: Catholic University of America Press. Retrieved from

Ewers, J. C. (1958). Blackfeet: Raiders Of The Northwestern Plains. Civilization Of The American Indian. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Retrieved from

Fletcher, A. C. (Alice C., & La Flesche, F. (1911). Omaha Tribe. Twenty-Seventh Annual Report Of The Bureau Of American Ethnology, 1905-06. Washington: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Owsley, D. (1994). Skeletal biology in the Great Plains: Migration, warfare, health, and subsistence. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The Rites of Passage. Death, Mourning, and Burial. Blackwell Publishing.

Weltfish, G. (1965). Lost Universe: With A Closing Chapter On “The Universe Regained.” New York: Basic Books. Retrieved from

Wishart, D. J. (1979). Dispossession Of The Pawnee. Annals Of The Association Of American Geographers, 69(3), 382–401. Retrieved from


Charles Marion Russell (Artist). When Blackfoot And Sioux Meet [Painting]. Retrieved March 24, 2015, from×768/When-Blackfoot-And-Sioux-Meet-1024×768.jpg

Karl Bodmer (Artist). Karl Bodmer Travels in America [Painting]. Retrieved March 24, 2015, from

Captain Samual Eastman (Artist). Medicine man administrating to a patient [Engraving]. Retrieved March 24, 2015, from

Body Positioning Practices Among the Omaha and Assiniboine

Many of the Native American tribes who lived on the Great Plains placed their dead in trees or on scaffolding.  In this form of funerary rites the body would be placed out of the reach of man and animals.  The bodies were tied in place to guard against wind, and covered to guard against scavengers.  The bodies of the deceased were important to many Great Plains tribes and were often kept out in the open so that loved ones could visit them (Denig, 1930).

Omaha tribe member

Omaha tribal member

The Omaha tribe, however, did not practice this; instead, they buried their dead.  They put the deceased in shallow graves upon a hilltop and then arranged the body in a sitting position that faced towards the east (Awakuni-Swetland, 2011).  Another way in which the Omaha tribe’s body positioning was different was how they placed those who were killed in a specific manner.  If a man was struck by lightning, the body was simply buried where it fell and was not moved from the position in which it fell (La Flesche, 1889).  Those who were murdered were buried faced downward with the soles of their feet split lengthwise to keep them from returning to their home village to give punishment to those who lived there (Fletcher and La Flesche, 1911).


Artist depiction of Assiniboine mortuary practice

The Assiniboine tribe also differed from other Plains tribes, though they did practice the scaffolding and tree method.  This was due in part both to a lack of proper tools needed to dig into the earth during winter months as well as the need for the Assiniboine to visit and feast with deceased loved ones.  When the bodies were placed on scaffolding or in the trees, the feet faced towards the south so the wind could carry the soul in that direction. This was where the tribe believed the Indian Paradise was located (Awakuni-Swetland; Denig, 1930).  Like the Omaha, the Assiniboine also buried bodies in the ground at the request of either the deceased or a relative of the deceased.  When this occurred, the bodies would be buried at the top of a hill in a five-foot deep hole.  Another method of burial among the Assiniboine was done at the request of warriors who were known to be brave.  Instead of the scaffolding, the bodies of these men were placed within their lodge in a propped up sitting position (Denig, 1930).

Painting of Assiniboine tribal member

Painting of Assiniboine tribal members

Ashmore and Geller (2005) suggested that the placement of the body may be in relation to social and worldview significance.  Within the Assiniboine, only brave and well-known warriors were allowed to be buried within the lodges and in a sitting position (Denig, 1930).  It may be due to their higher status within their village and the respect that others had for them that they were able to make this request while other tribe’s members were not.  Another similarity that is seen from Ashmore and Geller (2005) is the placement of the body being aligned with specific directions.  For both the Omaha and the Assiniboine tribes, this is related more to the direction the soul needs to travel in order to get to their tribes form of “Heaven” (Denig, 1930; Awakuni-Swetland, 2011).  This similar body placement was found among the Maya, where it was inferred that the placement of one king’s head in the cardinal direction north was a metaphor for heaven (Ashmore and Geller, 2005).

As is mentioned in Ashmore and Geller (2005) as well as in class, it can be difficult to make inferences as to why bodies are positioned in these ways.  Information about the body positioning of the Assiniboine may lead some to conclude that the Omaha also placed their dead facing to the east because this is where they believed the Indian Paradise was located.  It is also important that we do not over-infer the symbolic message that may or may not be there in the burial of those of the Omaha tribe (Ashmore and Geller, 2005).

Citations Ashmore, W., & Geller, P. L. (2005). Social dimensions of mortuary space.Interacting with the dead: Perspectives on mortuary archaeology for the new millennium, 81-92. Awakuni-Swetland, M. J. (2011). Culture Summary: Omaha. Human Relations Area Files. Denig, E. T. (1930). The Indians of the Upper Missouri. J.N.B. Hewitt (Ed.). Microfilming Corporation of American. Flecher, A. C. & La Flesche, F. (1911). The Omaha Tribe. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology. La Flesche, F. (1889). Death and Funeral Customs Among the Omahas. The Journal of American Folklore, 2(4), 3-11. Images Bodmer, K. (Photographer). Retrieved March 5, 2015 from: Bodmer, K. (Photographer). Retrieved March 5, 2015 from: Rinehart, F.A. (Photographer). (1898). [Photograph], Retrieved March 5, 2015, from:

The Funeral Practices of the Blackfoot and Cheyenne Tribes

The Blackfoot Tribe once spread across America and Canada, the tribe members pursuing trails of buffalo and giving thanks to the Sun Spirit. Small groups of kin were scattered south of the Saskatchewan River, across Montana, and west of the Great Sand Hills in Nebraska (Conaty and Beierie, 1999). The Northern Cheyenne Tribe lived close by in Northwestern Montana and Southern Canada, and the two tribes were allies (Ewers, 1958).

A Cheyenne camp of tipis.  The Blackfoot tribe had similar living arrangements as well, which made it easy for the Blackfeet to move away from a dead person's home.

A Cheyenne camp of tipis. The Blackfoot tribe had similar living arrangements, which made it easy for the Blackfeet to move away from a dead person’s home.

Their proximity and friendliness towards each other shows in certain cultural similarities, and the Blackfeet and Cheyenne had many similar rituals regarding funerary rites (though their concepts of the afterlife were different).

Like many Native American tribes, the introduction of Christianity altered many Blackfoot traditions. Before the introduction of Christianity and its ideas of heaven and hell, the Blackfeet’s mourning rituals centered more on erasing the deceased’s memory than saving his or her soul. They believed all souls traveled east to the Sand Hills and lived in a paradise there, and they had no concept of a moral judgment after death (Hanks, 1950).

If a man died, his possessions and land were immediately given away to more distant relatives or other members of the tribe (Ewers, 1958). The Blackfeet were nomadic, and fear of ghosts prompted them to abandon the campsite for a new area (Ewers, 1958). Since the spirit needed to find its way to the Sand Hills, the body was left in a tree or out in the open. Burying the body would have trapped the spirit in the earth. Sometimes, if the deceased was a man, he would be placed inside his abandoned home (Ewers, 1958).

The Cheyenne also believed leaving the body above ground was essential to a departed soul’s wellbeing, though they eventually buried their deceased. They placed the deceased’s personal belongings around him or her and even painted the body with distinctive markings to make sure the soul could find his or her body again in order to rest on the long journey to Seana—the destination for the average Cheyenne who dies a good death—located “at the end of the long fork of the Milky Way” (Straus, 1979).

A Blackfoot Burial Scaffold from the Blood Tribe

The Blackfoot mourning process could last between four days to as long as four years (Hanks, 1950). Male and female mourners would wear old, torn clothes and cut their hair, as well as smear white clay on their skin (Ewers, 1958). Men would often go to war, grieving by losing themselves in dangerous acts of bravery (Ewers, 1958). In contrast, women would sing mournful chants and cut their calves with sharp rocks (Ewers, 1958). (Singing was an important part of Blackfoot life, for everything from healing to stomping the prairie grass flat.)  Sometimes they even cut off parts of their fingers if the death was important, such as the death of a husband (Ewers, 1958).

For the Cheyenne, ghostly encounters weren’t a huge fear. After four days, the soul was considered to have reached Seana (Straus, 1979). During that time, the ghost of the deceased visited his or her loved ones, begging for company (Straus, 1979). After this period, the ghost reached Seana and the end of loneliness.

Death was also seen as a rite of passage in the Cheyenne. Part of the person’s essence sank into his or her bones, and could even be revived as a skeleton with enough magic (Straus, 1979). The person also continued to participate in society as a dream visitor, and often gave advice or power to people on Earth, having transitioned into a powerful and respected member of the community (Straus, 1979).

Loneliness was the worst part of mourning for the Cheyenne, and losing a close loved one could even depress the mourner to the point of losing the will to live (Straus, 1979). After the customary four days, however, the body was buried and mourners were expected to stop crying; their loved one had reached paradise (Straus, 1979).

The Blackfoot and Cheyenne tribes may have lived close to each other before the Europeans settled the West, but their separate cultures still flourished in different ways. Their similarities are just as fascinating as their differences.


Conaty, G., & Beierie, J. (1999). Culture Summary: Blackfoot. 1. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from EHRAF World Cultures.

Ewers, J. (1958). The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Northwestern Plains. 108, 196-197, 284. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from EHRAF World Cultures.

Hanks, L., & Hanks, J. (1950). Tribe under Trust: A study of the Blackfoot Reserve of Alberta. 159. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from EHRAF World Cultures.

Straus, A. (1979). The Meaning of Death in Northern Cheyenne Culture. In A. Robben (Ed.), Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader. Blackwell Publishing.


Laurence C. Gerckens (Photographer). Cheyenne camp with tipis [Photograph].  Retrieved February 12, 2015, from:

National Museums of Canada (Photographer).  Blackfoot (Blood) Burial Scaffold [Photograph].  Retrieved February 12, 2015, from: