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Public Heritage, a Desire for a “White” History for America, and Some Impacts of the Kennewick Man/ Ancient One Decision

  • Larry J. Zimmerman (a1)

The most recent opinion in the so-called Kennewick Man or Ancient One (as many American Indians choose to call the skeleton) case by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unfortunately resurrects some very old and contentious issues in America. Indians mostly view the opinion as one more echo of the same old story of Native American property issues raised in the courts, but they also understand that some implications may be broader. The most direct impact of the opinion is that the Umatilla people will not be allowed to return the Ancient One to the earth, but others could be portents of a larger resurgence of anti-Indian sentiment and scientific colonialism in America. Specifically, though not directly stated as such, the court's opinion supports a notion that archaeological materials are a public heritage, no matter their culture of origin. In addition, by affirming the plaintiffs' position, the court essentially declared archaeologists and associated scientists to be the primary stewards of that heritage, much to the chagrin of many American Indian people. Along the way, the court reinforced the idea that scientifically generated evidence has greater validity than oral tradition in court, outright denying oral tradition's validity and undercutting a major intention of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Worse still, the court reflects—and by its decision supports—an idea that there may be a “white” or European history for the Americas that predates the arrival of Indians. The most damaging and long-term impact is that the decision reinforces fundamentally erroneous definitions and stereotypes about Indians as tribes, which has plagued Indian-white relations for generations.

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International Journal of Cultural Property
  • ISSN: 0940-7391
  • EISSN: 1465-7317
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-cultural-property
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