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Thursday, July 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should drop efforts to hinder science's overdue telling of Kennewick Man's story.
By letting an appeal deadline pass Monday, the federal government and five tribes essentially called "uncle" in the eight-year legal battle to turn the 9,300-year-old bones over to the tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The victory belongs not only to the eight prominent scientists who sued for the right to study the remains but also to all Americans who want to know about the peopling of this continent.
Nevertheless, government officials and some tribal representatives have indicated it won't be so easy for the scientists to walk into Seattle's Burke Museum where the bones are stored and examine them. In response to the scientists' earlier study-plan proposal, Corps officials seem intent on applying new restrictions even though two federal courts have ordered that the scientists can study them under existing laws.
Rulings by the U.S. District Court in Portland and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals demolished the government's arguments that the repatriation act applied because the bones dated to before Christopher Columbus landed in North America. Both rulings said no credible link between the bones and modern Native American tribes existed, and acknowledged limited testing suggested the remains more closely resemble the people of Polynesia or the Ainu of Japan.
Among the early disagreements is whether Corps officials will permit the scientific study team to do testing that might require extracting material about the size of a pencil point. The government's own previous testing used more much.
The plaintiff scientists are not slouches, but a preeminent group, including the Smithsonian's Doug Owsley, one of the world's top forensic anthropologists. They have not only an interest but a stake in ensuring the bones are treated carefully and tested with minimal disturbance.
Government officials lost in court because of their clearly wrongheaded handling of Kennewick Man's case. They should stop obstructing scientists in their efforts to let Kennewick Man make his contribution to knowledge about the earliest Americans and how they came here.
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