Kennewick  Man  and  the  Culture  of  Race












Lee Drummond

Center for Peripheral Studies













June 2016 – August 2017








Facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man, from

Kennewick Man:

The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton








Kennewick Man and the Culture of Race



“Determination” of Kennewick Man:  Science and Society


    On April 26, 2016 US Army Brigadier General, Scott A. Spellmon of the Army Corps of Engineers signed what was to be the fourth “Native American Determination for Kennewick Man,” following three previous determinations by the Army Corps of Engineers or the Department of Interior over a twenty-year period.  General Spellmon’s action is the latest episode in a complicated story that pits government functionaries (the Army Corps and DOI), assorted political figures (including a governor and several members of Congress), representatives of several Indian tribes (including the Colville, Umatilla, and Nez Perce), and the inevitable army of lawyers against state and federal courts sympathetic to the claims of a stalwart group of archeologists intent of preserving a unique find for ongoing scientific investigation.  And all over a pile of bones. 

    A complicated story, but with a simple if dramatic beginning.  In July 1996 two young men, Will Thomas and David Deacy, were attending the annual hydroplane races held on the Columbia River near the town of Kennewick, Washington.  Walking along the shore of a small inlet, they spotted a human skull lying in the shallow water.  Thomas and Deacy called the police, who retrieved the skull and also noted the presence of other bones scattered around the immediate area.  The police delivered the skull to the county coroner, who called a forensic anthropologist, James Chatters, known to him from earlier collaborations.  Together the coroner and Chatters returned to the site that same day and recovered a number of bones from the inlet.  Over the next several days Chatters mounted a systematic excavation of the site and retrieved some 350 bones and bone fragments, comprising a nearly complete skeleton of an adult male.  Hence the discovery of Kennewick Man. 

    Chatters’ first responsibility was to assist the coroner and police in determining whether the remains were of a crime victim.  Artifacts scattered in the immediate area and the obvious weathering of the bones led him to reject that possibility in favor of one attributing the remains to those of an early settler of European origin.  Proceeding with his analysis, however, Chatters abandoned that hypothesis: lodged in the subject’s pelvic bone and partially healed over with bone tissue was a two-inch projectile point belonging to a very early lithic technology, the Cascade, that disappeared from the archeological record some 7,500 years ago.  Kennewick Man was very, very old. 

    A small bone fragment sent to a lab at the University of California Riverside for radiocarbon testing indicated just how old: some 9,300 to 9,600 years (subsequent research has established a somewhat younger date of 8,400 to 8,700 years).   

    Here it is important to recognize how truly extraordinary the discovery is.  Apart from the Kennewick site, there are only some forty-three U. S. locations containing human skeletal remains from the period 14,000 – 8,000 years before the present (BP).  Of those, a mere dozen feature fairly complete skeletons.  Gravely complicating the matter, half those have already been rendered inaccessible to archeological science by increasingly aggressive tribal “repatriation” demands.  The handful that remain constrain researchers, already hard-pressed for subject matter, in a way that endangers the very future of American archeology.  [See “Paleoamerican Human Remains Dated at Least 8,000 RC yr. BP,” Bradley T. Lepper.  In Kennewick Man . . .]

    Local news outlets soon spread the word of the remarkable find.  First to react were representatives of several neighboring Indian tribes, including the Umatilla and Colville, who came forward to claim the remains for reburial under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  That statute applies to Native American remains and artifacts found on tribal or federal land, and since the Army Corps of Engineers administers the banks of the Columbia River the tribal representatives made their demand to the Corps. 

    The Corps responded in a regrettably typical heavy-handed and arbitrary fashion, taking physical possession of the remains from the local coroner and shortly thereafter accepting the tribes’ argument that Kennewick Man was indeed “Native American” and should be “repatriated.”  At the time NAGPRA was just a few years old and its complexities were only beginning to make themselves felt in heated community meetings and law courts across the land.  And, truth to tell, the Corps demonstrated for the first time in a series of questionable “determinations” that its engineers and government functionaries are no rocket scientists.  Its prior accomplishments – draining and effectively destroying the Everglades to make room for tract homes and sugar plantations; designing a drainage system around New Orleans that contributed to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina; botching a Colorado River diversion project that created the toxic sinkhole of the Salton Sea – has not instilled confidence in those who become the unwilling objects of its attentions.  As one wag limned about the third boondoggle, “By the shores of Coachella, By the stinking Big Sea Waters . . .” 

    Alarmed by the Corps’ preemptory action and the incalculable loss to science it represented, a group of archeologists led by Robson Bonnichsen petitioned its regional director to delay its decision until a careful study of Kennewick Man could be done.  There was no response.  With the loss imminent the archeologists filed suit with the District Court of Oregon, which found the Corps had acted without sufficient evidence and remanded the case to the Corps for further investigation.  At this point, a series of legal battles commenced involving the Corps, the Department of the Interior, state and federal courts, the archeologists, and the tribes (whose representatives in a bit of Hollywood hyperbole had taken to calling the skeleton “The Ancient One” and insisting on ceremonial visits with the remains).  Twenty years later that saga continues to unfold, with Brigadier General Spellmon’s action in April the latest installment.  [Note: This was written well prior to developments a year later.]  The April “Determination” document lays out the chronology of events for those who may want to chart its tortured course (see “Native American Determination for Kennewick Man”):

    The legal maneuvering rests on, and in fact obscures, critical issues that extend into current debates in American society over the nature of race or ethnic identity and the status of minorities in our multiethnic society.  What is it to be such-and-such?  What is it to possess an elemental identity?  These are the fundamental questions that surround the dispute over Kennewick Man, questions that no piece of legislation drafted by government lawyers intent on establishing hard and fast guidelines can come near resolving. 

    At the heart of the problem is that NAGPRA treats Native American identity in the most cursory fashion while detailing in page after page the procedures to be followed in the transfer of remains and artifacts and, of course, the penalties for violating those procedures.  Surveiller et punir.  The Act sets out two defining criteria: Remains must be identifiably “Native American,” and must indicate “cultural affiliation.”


“Native American” means of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States. 


. . . “cultural affiliation” means that there is a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and an identifiable earlier group.  1990


The Corps’ “Determination” addresses only the first criterion and leaves unresolved the difficult matter of Kennewick Man’s “cultural affiliation.”  With so little of substance in the Act’s definition of “Native American” it isn’t surprising that the Corps’ immediate response following the discovery was to take the path of least resistance.  A political hot button issue had been dropped in its lap, local tribes were clamoring through the media for an end to the perceived desecration of their heritage, the skeleton was undoubtedly ancient, and then there was that projectile point buried in its hip bone.  What else could Kennewick Man be but “Native American”?  Let the tribes have their way and be done with it.  And then along came those pesky archeologists.

    For those archeologists opposing repatriation in 1996 and for archeologists and cultural anthropologists right through today, “Native American” is a largely meaningless category that conceals more than it reveals.  Perhaps contemporary analogies would be the categories, “Asian” or “European.”  Those are not so much labels for meaningful ethnic or social identities as glosses that hold little meaning until they are scrutinized.  For archeologists of Paleo-America that scrutiny involves filling in the mostly blank canvas of how and when the Americas were populated.  Who were the migrants?  Where did they come from?  When did they arrive?  How did they interact?  Here grade school textbooks and tribal doctrine embrace a disarmingly simple scenario: At some point around 14,000 years ago an ice-free corridor opened from the Yukon into southern Canada, making it possible for those few groups who had migrated across the once-submerged land of Beringia to continue their journey southward into what is now the United States.  But then the Beringia land bridge re-submerged, so no further migration was possible.  Hence all North American, Central American, and South American peoples originated from a single, fairly homogeneous founder group. 

    Research over the past couple of decades indicates that things were not nearly that simple.  It is far more likely that there were waves of migration involving distinct populations and extending over hundreds of years.  And there were probably different migratory routes: in addition to the inland ice-free corridor, some groups followed a coastal route, going from point to point in primitive boats (hence Arlington Springs Man, whose remains were discovered on California’s Channel Islands).  Once arrived in North America, these groups proceeded to move around, interacting and interbreeding in complex ways that created diverse populations.  Again, something like the inhabitants of Asia or Europe.  The notion of a homogeneous founder group is ideology, not archeology.   

    Until just a few years ago it was impossible even to begin to untangle this spider web of populations.  Then something occurred that is as close as science comes to a miracle: a few geneticists learned to extract ancient DNA from remains thousands of years old and sequence its genomes.  Yes, it’s more than a little reminiscent of  Jurassic Park.  And like those fictional fabricators of dinosaurs, the geneticists soon found their work embroiled in controversy. 

    It is a tale shot through with irony.  In 2004, eight years after the skeleton’s discovery, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Corps to allow scientific investigation of Kennewick Man.  A bone fragment was tested for its DNA, but results were useless until, in 2013, a Danish team using the latest techniques in genomic analysis were able to extract and sequence Kennewick Man’s DNA (“The Ancestry and Affiliations of Kennewick Man,” Nature, June 18, 2015).

The highly technical results indicate that Kennewick Man’s genome is more closely related to Native American groups than to other proposed candidates, such as Polynesian, Ainu, and even Caucasian.  This finding was cause for celebration among U. S. tribes, who took it to mean that, indeed, “Native American” was a meaningful identity of a people.  Leaders of the neighboring Colville tribe in particular felt vindicated and renewed their demand for repatriation to the Corps.   Following its review of the Nature findings, the Corps acceded to that demand.  Hence its formal “Determination” of April of this year:


Based upon review and analysis of new information related to the skeleton known as Kennewick Man, and in particular, evidence provided by recently published DNA and skeletal analyses, I find that there is substantial evidence to determine that Kennewick Man is related to modern Native Americans from the United States. Therefore, the human remains are Native American under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), as described below.


    Here we encounter the first of several ironies in this complicated and emotion-charged affair:  The Colville, Umatilla and related tribes rely on the very sort of scientific investigation to bolster their claim that they have rejected from the beginning as sacrilege.  Had Kennewick Man’s remains been reburied immediately as the tribes demanded, his “Native American” status would have remained a matter of belief rather than scientific fact. 

    But just how is that newly discovered “scientific fact” interpreted in the case at hand?  Again, it’s complicated.  The Danish team determined that particular genetic markers corresponded fairly closely with DNA samples Colville members had volunteered.  And here is a second irony:  Having embraced the genomic analysis of Kennewick Man – a desecration they previously rejected – Colville individuals now allowed themselves to become experimental subjects of that same procedure.  However, other genetic markers showed an affinity with far flung groups in Central and South America.  One small tribe on the western Amazon, the Karitiana, showed an especially close genetic relationship. 

    In his April “Determination” Brigadier General Spellmon attempts to thread a logical needle in interpreting the findings of the Nature article.  A part is privileged over the whole. If Kennewick Man is “Native American” and if “Native American” status includes inhabitants of the United States, such as the Colville, then “Kennewick Man is related to modern North Americans from the United States.  Therefore, the human remains are Native American under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act . . .”  Note the crucial phrase: “from the United States.”  Left unmentioned is the equally important fact that Kennewick Man is equally “related to” modern Native Americans from Central and South America.   

    Here the Corps, again yielding to political pressure from the tribes and from state and national politicians, plays fast and loose with both logic and genomics.  Without explicitly calling Spellmon out on this, the editors of Nature apparently felt his misuse of science was sufficiently egregious to require a response from the journal.  Thus in May, hard on the April “Determination,” Nature responded: 


    The genome established that Kennewick Man is more closely related to Native Americans than to other global populations sampled. This was no surprise and it torpedoed fringe theories that Kennewick Man was related to Europeans or an indigenous Japanese group.

    But the researchers also found that some South American groups such as the Karitiana, who live deep in the Amazon, are more related to Kennewick Man than are many North American tribes, such as the Ojibwa from the Great Lakes region. Of the five tribes seeking reburial, only members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation offered their DNA for comparison. Members of this tribe were found to share a relatively close connection to Kennewick Man, but no more than some other groups from North and South America.

    Kennewick Man’s genetic relationship to contemporary Native Americans, including the Colville tribes, will factor into the next decision that the US government faces: whether any tribe can make a legitimate claim to his bones. To make a case, tribes will need to establish a cultural affiliation with Kennewick Man on the basis of several lines of evidence including archaeological, geographical and biological links.

    This is where things get tricky. Members of the Colville and the other four Washington-state tribes seeking reburial may be descendants of Kennewick Man, but so too may be lots of other groups, including some in South America. Could the Karitiana also claim the remains? 

“Lessons from the Ancient One,” Nature,  May 4, 2016


 We now come to a third irony, which may be flagged with the question: Just how “Native American” are Native Americans?  In analyzing Kennewick Man’s DNA for its affinity with contemporary Indian populations, the Danish team compared it with existing samples from a number of tribal groups and with the newly obtained samples from several Colville individuals.  But there was a problem.  Over the five centuries of European colonization, Indians have intermixed extensively with Europeans, Africans, and even Asians.  The result of that intermixture is that any particular group or tribe contains individuals who fit the stereotype of Native American physical appearance, other individuals whom one would not characterize as Native American at all from their appearance, and many others who fall between these extremes.  Genomes of that group reveal the same wide range of genetic markers from non-Native Americans.  How did the geneticists deal with this problem?  Their solution was technically ingenious, but at the same time shines a glaring new light on their results.  That solution was to conceal or “mask” intrusive, non-Indian markers from their samples, so that they could compare the partial indigenous genomes of Colville and other tribes with the complete, unmasked genome of Kennewick Man.    


    Due to high levels of recent admixture in many Native American populations, we masked European ancestry from the Native Americans (Supplementary Information 6). No masking was done on the Kennewick Man. When we compare Kennewick Man with the worldwide panel of populations, a clear genetic similarity to Native Americans is observed both in principal components analysis (PCA) and using f3-outgroup statistics (Fig. 1a, b) . . . 

    Given some individuals in the panel have varying degrees of European and African admixture, we masked regions in their genomes where they are not homozygous for Native American ancestry. This allowed us to focus our analysis only on the Native American component of the data and to avoid any confounding signal that non-Native American admixture may produce.

“The Ancestry and Affiliations of Kennewick Man,” Nature, June 18, 2015


In short, the “new information” and “substantial evidence” Spellmon cites in his “Determination” are in fact an abstract model produced in a genomics lab, a model free of “any confounding signal that non-Native American admixture may produce.”  That “Native American” genome does not correspond to any living person. 

    Ethnic intermixture has become a pressing issue for the tribes.  In the past who was or was not “Indian” figured in an individual’s qualification to receive benefits from various government programs.  But those were not enough to prevent a steady decline of reservation populations and, with that decline, a further increase of ethnic intermixture.  Reservations typically were impoverished, depressing places, so that young adults in particular left for towns and cities where work and new lives could be found.  And those new lives often included marriages or domestic partnerships with non-Indians in the wider society.  Of a national population of just over five million Indian and mixed-Indian individuals, only some twenty-two per cent now live on a reservation.  And of the larger population, 2.9 million are classified as American Indian or Alaska native alone. 

    In the late ’seventies and early ’eighties the economic circumstances, but not the flight from the reservation, began to change dramatically.  The Seminole tribe of Florida secured a judicial interpretation of its sovereign nation status that permitted it to operate the first of what have become nearly five hundred Indian casinos and card rooms across the country.  Today annual net revenues from Indian gambling operations in the U. S. amount to something over thirty billion dollars. 

    In Washington state some 100,000 members of twenty-two tribes benefit from over two billion dollars in net revenues.  The Colville tribe, which actually consists of twelve “confederated” tribes with a total membership of about 9,400, has enthusiastically embraced Indian gambling (which, incidentally, is always referred to as “gaming”).  The Colville Business Council, which is also the tribal government, oversees the operations of Colville Gaming LLC.  That enterprise in turn administers three casinos on the reservation, including one casino hotel resort.  For September 2014, the latest period for which figures are available, monthly tribal distribution to members was approximately $2,150,000.  With a 2016 major expansion of one casino, that figure will increase substantially.  See “Colville Gaming LLC, General Membership Meeting, October 10, 2015”  (slide player):

    In addition to casino revenue, in 2012 the Colville tribe settled a long-running legal case with the U. S. government over mismanagement of tribal lands held in federal trust.  The courts awarded the Colville $193,000,000.  At present the Colville Business Council is embroiled in a dispute with a number of tribal members over how much and in what manner settlement monies will be distributed.  In any event, the greatly expanded tribal coffers have led to two situations.  First, Colville leaders now have ample funds to pursue their effort to “repatriate the Ancient One” and thereby enhance their status as a distinct people.  That pursuit, of course, consists in fielding a team of lawyers and experts to continue the court battle that may well come when the tribe is required to demonstrate, not only the “Native American” status of Kennewick Man, but his “cultural affiliation” as well. 

    The second situation is that being Colville, that is, holding tribal membership, is now extremely important from a financial perspective.  As with numerous other tribes, the Colville are now involved in the difficult, sometimes rancorous task of determining who is and who is not a tribal member.  Individuals of mixed ancestry who long since moved off the reservation now press their claim to membership and the substantial monthly checks from casino revenues that come with membership.  At the same time tribal councils, anxious to safeguard payments to those they consider bona fide community members, act to reject those claims.  Even long-standing members of the community whose descent is uncertain may find themselves “disenrolled” by an aggressive council.   To include or to exclude is an action that matters greatly to many tribal members who fear for the status and hence financial well-being of their children and grandchildren.   

    Consider the following not atypical scenario.  Full tribal membership for the Colville is determined by an individual’s presence or absence on old tribal rolls or some other documented evidence of descent from full tribal members.  It is 1960.  A young woman of 20 whose parents are both full tribal members decides to leave the reservation for work in town.  She is a full tribal member.  In town she meets and marries a local white man.  They have three children, all born during the 1980s.  All three are one-half Colville, and hence tribal members (regardless of residence), for the tribe assigns membership to individuals who are at least one-quarter Colville.  In the 2000s all three grown children marry non-Colville individuals and maintain residences off the reservation.  These couples produce children, all of whom meet the minimum requirement of one-quarter Colville descent to be enrolled in the tribe.  They are the grandchildren of the woman who left the reservation in 1960.  It is 2010 and she is a frail seventy year-old, a tribal elder with an important voice in the community.  She, along with her children, are gravely concerned for the next generation of their family.  If the woman’s grandchildren have children with partners who are not at least one-half Colville, those children will be ineligible for tribal membership and the modicum of financial security that provides.  As a tribal elder she is not alone in fearing that outcome, and allies with others to demand action from the Colville Business Council to forestall it. 


     At the other end of the spectrum are tribes whose enrollments are stagnating, including for example the Colville Confederated Tribes in northeast Washington.

    Tribal council member Ricky Gabriel has proposed a referendum to relax the blood requirement in the tribal constitution so more children of mixed marriages can enroll.

    "I've had a lot of very positive [responses]” he says. "The elders are extremely happy about this. They're pushing hard. They're seeing their grandchildren not be able to be enrolled."

    Enrollment in the tribe currently requires a minimum of one-quarter Colville blood.  But when you have intermarriage, that bloodline is diluted. It takes just a couple of generations of intermarriage to put the children at risk of being disqualified from membership.

    Then the tribal population withers. The proposed referendum would change the rules to count any Indian blood toward the minimum.



Kennewick Man and Identity Politics:  The Culture of Race

    . . . to count any Indian blood toward the minimum. 


    Here it is necessary to shift from the technical procedures of that Danish genomics lab and the political and legal maneuvering of tribal leaders to the laboratory of everyday life in present-day America.  For that purpose, Kennewick Man becomes less an object for study than an anthropological lens through which to view and interpret the uproar raised by his discovery. 

    First, it is important to recognize the irresolvable contradiction at the heart of Colville ideology and political action.  If Ricky Gabriel and his allies among the tribal elders succeed in passing that referendum, then having  “any Indian blood” will be a sufficient basis for establishing an identity as a Native American.  It is a logic of inclusion: possessing the smallest part entails membership in the whole.  On that basis, a great many Americans – far greater than the Colville tribal roll – would qualify as Colville and hence “Native American.”  But then there is the tribal elders’ ideology focused on Kennewick Man, which is based on a contrary logic of exclusion:  Only those descended from The Ancient One are “Native American” and thus entitled to all the rights guaranteed by NAGPRA.  The ideology embraces the thesis of an unbroken line of descent from a genetically homogenous founder group including Kennewick Man to present-day Colville.  Both arguments, by inclusion and exclusion, are patently absurd.  Ricky Gabriel’s referendum if passed would produce an endless line of qualified applicants for tribal membership and the rapidly dwindling payouts from casino revenues.  By contrast, the ideology of “The Ancient One” envisions a prehistoric world in which group membership was passed in an unbroken line for some 8,500 years.  It is pure fantasy.  Over four hundred generations have come and gone, far more even than the “begats” of Genesis, but the all-important seed of “Native American” or, even more absurd, “Colville” identity  persists?  Consider an analogy.  You’ve been told that several of your ancestors emigrated from Scotland to the U. S. in the early to mid-1800s.  When you pass on to your just rewards, do you expect that the government of Scotland or some Scottish municipality will petition the U. S. State Department for the repatriation of your remains?  Improbable as that seems, extend the analogy to encompass the time frame of Kennewick Man.  8500 years ago the “Scots” who had moved back into the area after successive ice ages were running around in skins, trying to keep body and soul together.  If they entertained, as doubtlessly they did, notions of local group identity, those most certainly had nothing to do with anyone resembling you.  Nor would you as a contemporary American find much you have in common with “Scots” of 8500 years ago.  [And, no, being a big fan of Braveheart doesn’t count.]    

    The tribes’ demand for repatriation and the complicity of the U. S. government in that demand are part of a larger tableau in American life: identity politics and the culture of race.  Americans and American culture continually wrestle with utterly contradictory attitudes and beliefs regarding “race.”  We are told by teachers and employers that what we do is far more important than who, in terms of our heritage, we are.  In the language of a mercifully defunct sociology, American society is organized on the basis of performance, not ascription.  Yet we find ourselves confronted on all sides by evidence that is not the case.  Identity politics has become the order of the day.  Black Lives Matter, La Raza, the American Indian Movement, Women’s Liberation, Make America Great Again, and other ethnic or gender-based movements are ready to provide firm, not to say strident answers to that fundamental question posed earlier: What is it to be such-and-such?  And often those stereotypical answers are accepted; they become the basis for social action, sometimes on a grand scale.  It turns out the lyrics of that old song are true: wishing will make it so. 

    Identity politics can and does have positive, progressive effects.  Through valorizing a formerly stigmatized identity, individuals are given courage, a sense of self-worth that motivates them to achieve.  But it is essential to look long and hard at the basis for much of identity politics: the concept of race is accepted as a fact of human nature.  No matter how advocates spin it, the name of this perspective is racism.  For who is a racist?  A racist is someone who assigns social identity and social worth to an individual based on that person’s perceived biological descent.  As Lévi-Strauss famously wrote, a barbarian is someone who believes in barbarians.  In seeking to rebury Kennewick Man, Colville, Umatilla and other tribes embrace the concept / metaphor of “blood,” as in “a drop of Indian blood.”  That metaphor, of course, has a notorious history, having provided the rationale for the extermination and enslavement of masses of American Indians and blacks. 

    Identity politics is a curious and disturbing phenomenon which operates in the U. S. today as a  double-edged sword.  The watchword of that political discourse is diversity.  Individuals with particular racial, ethnic, or gender self-ascriptions join with others they perceive as like themselves to form movements and advance their political agendas.  Celebrating diversity thus seems to bolster the image of American society as committed to “multiculturalism” as that is embraced by an important segment of the population.  Critics, however (who form a large and vocal group), argue that “diversity” is just another name for divisiveness, and that emphasizing difference and exclusiveness can only hurt the body politic.  Their general argument is hard to refute on logical grounds: How is social integration promoted by the self-segregation of groups dedicated to emphasizing their own distinctive identities?  It’s a thorny and important issue, since it figures prominently in the 2016 presidential election campaigns now in full swing.  As I write (August 2016) the conundrum of diversity vis-à-vis divisiveness is on display in the grade school rhetoric of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump:  “He’s a racist and a bigot!”; “Am not. She is!”, and on and on.  Never in recent memory has identity politics figured so prominently on the national stage. 

    In the eye of this storm, however, an important truth about identity politics has gone mostly unnoticed: Identity politics as practiced today is nothing like its practice when it burst on the American scene some fifty years ago.  Although the historical trend is not perfectly clear-cut – nothing social ever is – identity politics in general has gone from being a violent, rebellious confrontation with the Establishment to being a defensive and sometimes bureaucratic effort to contain and placate it.    

    That trend is most in evidence in the changing relationship of African-Americans to the wider society.  In terms of national attention, from presidents and aspiring presidents and from major cable news outlets, the Black Lives Matter movement today eclipses other activist groups engaging in identity politics.  Conservative and a great many moderate whites regard BLM as a dangerous “radical” group bent on anarchy and race war.  And indeed some of their marches and demonstrations feature shouted slogans – obsessively reported by Fox News – that espouse violence.  “What do we want?”  “Dead cops!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”; and “Pigs in a blanket!”  “Fry ’em like bacon!”.  [Note:  For readers unfamiliar with American popular culture, “pigs in a blanket” refers to hot dogs wrapped in bacon strips.  Here the metaphor goes astray, since “pigs” – bacon – are  the blanket.]  The rhetoric is as misleading as the metaphor.  While BLM demonstrations have involved violence of the pushing-and-shoving, rock-throwing, fire-starting sort, nowhere have they approached anything like armed revolutionary struggle. 

    The truth is that BLM began as resistance to the racial crisis in Ferguson, Missouri following the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white Ferguson police officer.  In the immediate aftermath, Brown’s companion and a couple of other witnesses to the shooting told police and, more importantly, the news media that Brown was first shot in the back running away from the officer, then turned around and shouted, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!”  The crowds, incensed by the heavy-handed police response to demonstrators’ actions (some of those actions were criminal), conceived the protest cry, “Hands Up!  Don’t Shoot!”  That phrase spread like wildfire, becoming the rallying cry in BLM marches and demonstrations in numerous cities. 

    It has not helped BLM’s call for racial justice that the original narrative of the shooting of Michael Brown is very likely a lie.  Seven months after the event the Department of Justice released a detailed report documenting gross inconsistencies in that narrative.  Forensic evidence revealed that Brown and police officer Darren Wilson had struggled through the window of the patrol car for possession of Wilson’s gun.  The gun discharged and Brown was struck in the hand at close range.  At first running from the car, Brown turned and charged Wilson with his hands “out” in a tackling position rather than “up.”  Wilson then fired the fatal shot.


    While “Hands Up!  Don’t Shoot!” was portrayed by the media as an index of black rage, looked at dispassionately the cry is passive in the extreme.  It says, in effect, “I give up; don’t hurt me!”.  Hardly the slogan of a revolutionary movement.  Yet BLM is still perceived as a radical group.  Why?  The answer brings us up against that transformation in identity politics signaled above.  It requires some unpacking, but the paradoxical nature of that politics already becomes clear:  the protests of identity politics, supposedly an impassioned demand for action, are couched in the language of victimization.  I give up; don’t hurt me!  How has this come about? 

    For the answer to that question it is necessary to look back a half-century, to the Black Panthers.  The Panthers provide a stark contrast with Black Lives Matter; together they represent the fundamental transformation (and embody the inherent paradox) in what has become known as “identity politics.” 

    The Black Panthers were organized in 1966 and effectively disbanded, as a result of government repression and internal discord, in 1971.  During that brief time they functioned as an armed revolutionary movement, engaging in pitched battles with police and rival organizations while also establishing community-based programs to feed, educate, and provide medical care for impoverished blacks.  In June 1969, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared, “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country,” and pledged that 1969 would be the last year of the group’s existence.  His threat came close to fulfillment when, in December of that year,  police raided the Chicago apartment of a Panther leader, Fred Hampton.  The raid was planned by the police and agents of the FBI’s COINTELPRO group – essentially a counter-insurgency force operating within the nation’s borders.  In the raid Hampton was killed (cause of death: two bullets in the brain fired at point-blank range) as well as another Panther member.  Billed as a ferocious “shootout” in the media at the time, investigators found that of approximately one hundred rounds fired only one came from the Panthers.  A police ruse to hammer nail holes into the apartment door, claiming these were return fire from the Panthers, was exposed.  Hampton was targeted because he was perceived by law enforcement to be a charismatic leader capable of unifying warring Panther factions into a genuine threat to the nation. 

    Fast forward to July 2016.  President Obama met with government officials, law enforcement personnel, and two leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement in a “Forum on Policing” following the assassination of five Dallas policemen.  At the meeting he declared that “We are one American family,” and continued:


We're not even close to being there yet, where we want to be. We're not at a point yet where communities of color feel confident that their police departments are serving them with dignity and respect and equality. And we're not at the point yet where police departments feel adequately supported at all levels. 


Of the two leaders of Black Lives Matter, DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett,   McKesson, who alone is quoted, had constructive things to say:


The meeting -- which lasted over four hours -- included Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and Black Lives Matter activists DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett.

McKesson called the meeting with Obama and leaders "productive” and [said]  that the President was "incredibly solution orientated in this conversation and pushed to challenge people to think about the concrete things that both the administration could do and law enforcement and activists could do to make sure that we address the issue of police violence head on and also that our communities are safe.”


They even held hands.   

    McKesson’s rhetoric, which sounds like that of a candidate for public office, contains not the faintest echo of that of black activists of the late ’sixties.  Apart from the Panthers, who sometimes punctuated their speech with gunfire, compare McKesson’s plea to promote mutual understanding with the words of another figure from the period, Malcolm X. 


Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. 


Or, on being interviewed and rejected for the draft, he told draft board members that he wanted to be sent to the South to . . .


organize them nigger soldiers … steal us some guns, and kill us [some] crackers. 


A few years later another major figure in ’sixties black activism also refused military service. 

Muhammad Ali: 


I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger.


Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, a year before Ali’s defiance.  Ali was not killed, but arrested, convicted of draft evasion, and stripped of his heavyweight title.  Only his prominence as a national hero kept him from prison. 

    It would be difficult to overstate how much things have changed.  Today’s “radicals” – McKesson and the Black Lives Matter activists – are milk-toast compared with their predecessors of a half-century ago.  And in the meantime those figures have been almost magically rehabilitated.  Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, feared and despised revolutionaries, are now iconic martyrs of the bad old days.  Malcolm X appears on a U. S. postage stamp, and upon his death in 2016) Ali was given what amounted to a state funeral. 

    These sea changes in identity politics raise a fundamental social issue in American life today:  How is the individual to act who perceives himself to be at odds with the State?  The answer appears to be in two parts.  First, the incipient revolutionary is recast as victim.  And second, as a victim the individual demands of the State and the wider society what a victim typically expects: solace, protection, shelter from the storm.  In short, in the parlance of today, a safe space and an insulating bubble that protects one from perceived threats in the form of microaggressions, threats that need to be identified in advance through issuing trigger warnings that a particular social event, text, or speech may cause distress.  An imperative of contemporary social thought is to identify the deep-seated dynamics in American society that have produced this remarkable transformation of revolutionary to victim.  In this topical essay it is impossible adequately to explore those dynamics.  Regarding identity politics specifically, however, a tentative thought may be aired:  The enormous size and power of the modern nation state means that real protest, a genuine revolutionary threat, is crushed early on, leaving the revolutionary with only two stark choices: to die or assume the role of victim.  A third possibility of redress, legislative  or judicial action at the federal and state level, is foreclosed by the widespread perception, if not reality, that those bodies are bought and paid for by a power elite that runs the country.  Rather than living under the rule of law, Americans live under the rule of lawyers.  Lawyers who further enrich themselves by becoming politicians.   

    Having identified the phenomenon of victimization as it has evolved among black activists over the past half-century, it is  necessary to inquire whether a similar process has occurred among a group closer to our present subject matter:  Native Americans.  The answer appears to be that it has, though, as might be expected considering the disparate histories and numbers of the two populations, with significant differences.  

    Paralleling the formation of the Black Panther Party, Indian activists, notably Dennis Banks and Russell Means, launched the American Indian Movement in 1968.  Its mission, organized around the slogan “Red Power,” was similarly comprehensive: to monitor and resist police violence against Indian communities; and to provide much-needed social services to those communities.  AIM’s most dramatic action, in concert with the affiliated group Indians of All Tribes, was the forcible occupation of Alcatraz island in San Francisco Bay.  Red Power activists, of whom a principal leader was the Mohawk, Richard Oakes, held the island for nineteen months, from November 1969 to June 1971, when a dwindling group of occupiers was forcibly evicted by the Coast Guard.  Following the Alcatraz occupation, in late 1972 AIM leaders were instrumental in organizing the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan, a miles-long assemblage of vehicles which left from Seattle Washington bound for Washington D.C.  The Caravan reached the nation’s Capitol days before the scheduled presidential election – in which the war criminal Richard Nixon was returned to office in a landslide.  Nixon officials in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Department of the Interior reneged on their previous agreement with Caravan organizers to provide parade permits and housing.  Left in the lurch, activists occupied and vandalized offices of the Department of the Interior until they were removed by riot police. 

    The late ’sixties and early ’seventies saw the integration and subsequent violent dissolution or suppression of revolutionary groups with various agendas and constituencies, one of which was AIM.  Here Fred Hampton, the assassinated Panther leader was instrumental.  He was the moving force behind the formation of the Rainbow Coalition, an umbrella group that brought together Black Panthers, AIM leaders, the Young Lords, (a Puerto Rican activist group), the Brown Berets (a pro-Chicano group), I Wor Kuen (a Marxist Asian-American group), Patriot Party and White Panther Party members (white activists), and others.  Hampton’s vision was to unify these groups, which sometimes engaged in internecine gang warfare, into a radical socialist movement fundamentally opposed to the government.  As noted, the early successes of this charismatic figure so alarmed authorities, J. Edgar Hoover in particular, that the FBI’s clandestine counter-insurgency group COINTELPRO arranged his assassination.  To round out this dark period of our history, in May 1970 Nixon’s henchman Jim Rhodes, governor of Ohio, ordered his National Guard onto the campus of Kent State, promising that “we are going to eradicate the problem.”  The administration thus demonstrated what it was prepared to do to quell resistance of all kinds: black, white, red, antiwar, simple social protest, all were targets of lethal suppression.  That legacy is with us today, and is a major factor in defining the culture of race as a culture of victimization. 

    As revolutionaries turned victims, Indians have fared far better than blacks in recent decades.  Ironically, as the demands of AIM were frustrated and the organization forced into the background of public life, the sovereign nation status of individual tribes was enhanced through a number of court rulings.  Principal among these was a tribe’s right to build and operate casinos on its land.  Many reservations have become Bantustans with slot machines.  In addition to newfound casino revenues, the Obama administration has settled long-standing legal disputes over property rights and government management of tribal lands.  Several billion dollars have been paid to a number of tribes, including, as noted, some 193 million dollars to the Colville. 

    Today the most important aspect of the American culture of race as it pertains to the tribes is that greatly improved legal and financial status paradoxically go hand-in-hand with an entrenched vision of the Indian as victim.  That vision applies not only to current relations between Indians and the wider society, but extends, as we see with Kennewick Man, into the distant past.  The remains of Kennewick Man are not the illicit loot of repugnant grave robbers who desecrated an Indian burial ground; the 8500 year-old bones eroded naturally from a river bank and were retrieved with care and respect by a professional archeologist.  Despite this, tribal leaders persist in seeing their Ancient One as a victim of white interference, a violation that can only be made right by reburying those bones in a secret location.   That view is underscored at the highest level of government.  Larry Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee and Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs under President Obama, has said of the excavation of Native American remains, “Regardless of the motive for expropriating Indian graves, the impact of this activity upon the affected Indians is always the same: emotional trauma and spiritual distress.”  The language could not be more judgmental or far-reaching; Echo-Hawk makes no distinction between grave-robbing and archeological research.  They are all instances of “expropriation,” and always inflict “emotional trauma and spiritual distress” on affected Indians, including those who insist on recognizing a bond dating back through millennia.    




Kennewick Man Redux  


        The tribes are so fixated on the matter of victimization that they ignore the most important lesson Kennewick Man has to teach us.  That lesson is not a spurious Yoda-like ineffable wisdom, the eternal silence of The Ancient One secreted forever in a hidden grave.  Rather, it is the glimpse Kennewick Man provides into one of the most important chapters in human history: the peopling of the New World.  That phenomenon did not consist of homogeneous descent groups frozen in time for millennia, but a complex and dynamic process of the earliest Americans moving, mixing, loving, fighting, living, and dying as they spread – at remarkable speed – across two continents.  And it is a process that, if they were honest with themselves, tribal members would recognize as an elemental feature of their own lives as they struggle to exist as a people in a world of bewildering, kaleidoscopic change. 

    Archeologists and forensic anthropologists, usually not given to eloquence, occasionally write about “the voice of the bones.”  The voice of Kennewick Man, stifled for millennia in an unknown Washington grave, was very nearly silenced forever by the strident demands of the Umatilla, Colville and other tribes and the feckless collusion of officials of the Army Corps of Engineers.  Following the discovery the Corps studiously ignored the entreaties of a small group of archeologists until, at the last minute, a state court granted an injunction on the proposed “repatriation.”   

    For nearly ten years the bones were silent, languishing in poorly curated storage containers at the Burke Museum in Seattle.  Following yet another court order, a team of scientists was allowed brief access.  The Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley assembled a team drawn from diverse fields who conducted an extensive investigation over ten days into all aspects of the remains, situating that investigation in the context of what was known of Paleoamerican habitation of the Columbia basin.  Their findings are presented in a handsome and exhaustive volume, Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton, edited by Owsley and Richard L. Jantz (Texas A&M University Press, 2014).  It is the most extensive work on any single Paleoamerican skeleton.  That is the true voice of Kennewick Man. 

    What does that voice tell us?  It is a very different and far more complex story than the fable of Native American homogeneity spun by the tribes for politically sensitive ears in government. 

    Kennewick Man lived at a time and in a place, the Columbia River Basin, of major social change. 


Kennewick Man dates to a time of transition between two distinct cultural traditions.  The Western Stemmed Tradition was nearing the end of its reign in the Columbia Plateau as the Old Cordilleran Tradition began its rise.   

. . .  Although the practitioners of both the Old Cordilleran Tradition and Western Stemmed Tradition were highly mobile foragers, these occupants of the Columbia Basin led markedly different lives.  Western Stemmed Tradition people followed an annual pattern of migration throughout the landscape that exploited different plant and animal resources in distinct habitats by using specially designed implements for each prey type.  They were primarily hunters who took their prey with both atlatls and bolas.  Fishing was secondary and plants were not exploited significantly, probably due to a lack of appropriate technology for converting complex carbohydrates into food. 

     In contrast, Old Cordilleran people spent most of their time along major rivers, subsisting primarily on fish, freshwater mussels, and small mammals. 

. . .  Simultaneous changes in basic lithic reduction strategy, tool and processing technologies, settlement patterns, implement and basketry styles, and the physical characteristics of the people themselves show the transition from the Western Stemmed to the Old Cordilleran Tradition to have been an ethnic replacement event that was fundamentally genetic. . .  The Old Cordilleran appears earlier west of the Cascade Range than it does in the interior, which is evidence that the newcomers first adapted to coastal environments and then followed familiar habitat up the rivers. . .  The near simultaneous appearance of the Old Cordilleran Tradition throughout the region within a century of 8,000 RC yr. BP, however, indicates that the Western Stemmed Tradition probably persevered, perhaps as a lowered population, during the interim. 

“Geography, Paleoecology, and Archaeology,” James C. Chatters.  In Kennewick Man . . .  (my emphasis) 


Here it is important to recall that current thinking on the peopling of the Americas  identifies two separate migratory routes from eastern Siberia.  One route was that taken by big game hunters following their prey along the ice free corridor that opened in the late Pleistocene between the two glacial fields of western Canada.  The other was coastal, used by groups which had acquired a maritime technology that enabled them to hopscotch down the Pacific coast and islands.  Over time the big game hunters spread east, south, and west, a pattern which would have taken some groups into the Columbia Basin.  At roughly the same time, coastal peoples would have recognized the Columbia River for what it was, both then and now: a major artery connecting land and sea.  It is not a speculative reach to identify Western Stemmed groups with the big game hunters and Old Cordilleran groups with coastal people who kept close to river and sea.  One wonders what Jean Auel might do with the story of Kennewick Man among the mountain people and the sea people. 

    Kennewick Man’s final resting place was in a locale whose populations were highly diverse and doubtlessly involved in complex, and quite possibly violent interaction.  Social life was nothing like the Indian fable of a uniform people living a timeless existence.  And there is more, much more wrong with that stereotype: Rather than being “indigenous,” a son of the soil, all evidence points to Kennewick Man being an outsider, a stranger. 


. . .  Kennewick Man’s isotope values reflect a diet comprised primarily of high-trophic-level marine pinnipeds [seals and sea lions].  As only one species swam inland along the Columbia River, up to, but not beyond, the Dalles, Oregon . . . Kennewick Man could not have been a long-time resident of the area where he was found, but instead lived most of his adult life somewhere along the  Northwest and North Pacific coast where marine mammals were readily available.  Reinforcing this, Kennewick Man’s collagen isotope values are more similar to Pacific coastal human populations with diets based primarily on marine mammals. . .

    Kennewick Man’s depleted [oxygen isotope] level indicates that he drank cold river water originating in high elevation snow or glacial melt. . .  (Joan Coltrain, August 27, 2013 personal communication):  “Given Kennewick Man’s [oxygen isotope] value, he does not appear to be local to the Kennewick area, inland or coastal.  If all we knew about him was his oxygen isotope chemistry, we might argue that he originated in inland, northern Alaska.” . . .

    In conclusion, available isotope data for Kennewick Man suggest that he lived most of his life in coastal locations north of the state of Washington. 

“Who Was Kennewick Man?”, Douglas W. Owsley and Richard L. Jantz.  In Kennewick Man . . .  


    Kennewick Man is an enigma, his fascinating life story ignored by tribal casino executives and Army Corps mediocrities.  A stranger to the inland region, he evidently was not killed in battle and his body cast aside for scavengers to ravage.  Rather, the meticulous work of the forensic anthropologists document that, based on the deposition of carbonates in his bones, he was laid to rest on his back, the body unflexed, with palms outstretched.  In short, he was accorded a formal burial, consistent with that of a prominent member of the community.  Were others buried nearby, and if so, what sort of burial did they receive?  We will never know.  Following the discovery of the skeleton and days before permission was to be granted researchers to conduct exploratory excavations in the vicinity, the Corps dispatched helicopters to drop tons of concrete rubble on the site.  Thus the Corps was not only an incompetent administrator of the find, but a co-conspirator with the tribes in preventing possibly invaluable knowledge from coming to light.  Your tax dollars at work. 

    If Kennewick Man found peace in death, in life he experienced considerable physical trauma and violence.  What first alerted James Chatters to the skeleton’s antiquity was a projectile point over two inches long embedded in its pelvis.  A spear had been hurled at him with great force, evidently from an atlatl, so that the point could not be extracted.  The fact that bone had ossified around it indicates the injury occurred years before Kennewick Man’s death (at around age 38), when he was a young man presumably active in intergroup hostilities.  In addition to the spear injury, he sustained two skull fractures, quite possibly from violent encounters.  A shoulder had been injured, again probably from a spear thrust, so severely that a portion of bone became detached from the skeletal matrix.  Remarkably, Kennewick Man sustained numerous fractured ribs, on the order of six or eight, perhaps from a serious fall or, again, violence.  His was a rugged, rough-and-tumble existence in a physical environment and a social world filled with potential harm.  There were no “safe spaces.”  The fact that he survived and, judging by the respect given him in death, triumphed demonstrates that Kennewick Man was a tough customer who gave as good as he got.  Considering the gripping drama of his life, the tribes’ stereotyping him as the wise and pacific Ancient One seems all the more ludicrous – a cheap public relations ploy to elicit support from politically correct officials.  

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