Your Government at Work (small minds cause big trouble)

06/30/2015 09:30

by Wayne Flaherty


The September 2014 issue of the Smithsonian magazine contains an article about a 9000 year old man dubbed the Kennewick man. The article details investigations into the life of this man. Inside the article citizens can get a very revealing insight into the thinking of our government and the small vindictive minds that are in charge of some of its organizations.

Involved in this sordid tale are three groups; various and sundry government officials and organizations, scientists attempting to review the life and times of the Kennewick man, and leaders from local American Indian tribes.

Leading the scientists was Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian institution. Another 48 authors, 17 researchers, photographers, and editors contributed to the most complete analysis of a paleo American skeleton ever done. The result was a 680 page study of the oldest human skeleton ever found in North America.

On the side of the government was the Army Corps of Engineers, a 1992 law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Batelle), the Justice Department, 93 government attorneys, the FBI, and some members of Congress.

The Indians were represented by a coalition of Columbia River Basin Indian tribes.

The story goes something like this. In the summer of 1996 two college students found a skull while wading in the shallows of the Columbia River. They notified local police who brought in the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson. Johnson contacted James Chatters, a local archaeologist. Chatters sent a bone sample off for carbon dating. The bone was determined to be 9000 years old. The Army Corps of Engineers claimed authority. They would make all decisions related to the bones. They demanded that all study cease. Johnson, the County coroner, claimed he had legal jurisdiction. Chatters then called Owsley, a curator at the National Museum of Natural History. Owsley and Dennis Stanford, then chairman of the Smithsonian Anthropology Department pulled a team together to examine the bones.

Before Owsley and Stanford could act the corps locked them up at Battelle. Then came the local Indian tribes who claimed the skeleton under NAGPRA. They would never rationalize the fact that the Kennewick man was 9000 years old while their tribes were a few hundred years old at best. Throughout the saga the tribes have maintained their right to the skeleton. When the corps announced they would return the skeleton to the Indians, Owsley and his colleagues filed a lawsuit. Attempts were made to ruin their careers but they persevered. A judge ordered the corps to hold the bones until the case was resolved. The Justice Department contacted the Smithsonian institution and warned that Owsley and Stanford might be violating "criminal conflict of interest statutes...".


Owsley and his group were finally forced to sue, not just the corps, but also the Department of the Army, the Department of the Interior, and some individual government officials. The scientists ask the corps for permission to examine the site where the skeleton was found. While Congress was writing a bill to require the court to preserve the site, the core dumped a million pounds of rock and fill over the site. This ended any chance of research.

Ultimately the scientists won the lawsuit. In 2002 the judge ruled that NAGPRA did not apply. The government appealed to the Ninth District Court which again ruled in favor of the scientists. Judge John Jelderks noted for the record that on multiple occasions the corps had misled or deceived the court. He found that the government had acted in bad faith and awarded the plaintiff's $2,379,000.

In the end the Kennewick man is firmly ensconced in a secure place in the annals of archaeology. The government officials and their organizations were sent packing with their tails between their legs, having cost the taxpayers something in excess of $5 million. The Indians still hold to their right to the skeleton.

This 12 page article in the Smithsonian Magazine is worth reading to learn how great minds are able to document the life and times of a 9000 year old man. It is also worth reading to see the small minds of our government officials at work as they try to thwart the citizens who pay their bloated salaries.