Curse of the K-Man

Is the Northwest's oldest resident getting fed up with his tormentors?

MANY NATIVE Americans strongly believe it's very bad medicine to mess around with the remains of the dead. Western scientists, of course, pooh-pooh the very idea that the spirit world could exact a price from those who fail to respect the dead. But in the ongoing saga of the Kennewick Man, the 9000-year-old skeleton still sequestered in a climate-controlled vault at the Burke Museum, you might excuse some nonbelievers if they felt an occasional cold chill. A number of people involved in keeping the old guy above ground have been having a bit of bad luck lately.

One such is National Parks Service chief archaeologist Francis P. McManamon. He's been in charge of implementing the applicable law—the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—ever since the Interior Department took over from the US Army Corps of Engineers in the K-Man case.

Not any longer. Responsibility for interpreting and enforcing the controversial act was recently shifted to another department within the Interior Department's sprawling bureaucracy. Dissatisfaction among higher-ups with how McManamon has handled the job? A routine power grab by an ambitious rival? Insiders' stories differ, but McManamon's powers have unquestionably been cut back.

But McManamon, for the time being at least, remains in full control of the K-Man case and plans to meet next week with local Native Americans to talk about the skeleton's "cultural affiliation": the ticklish question of which, if any, of the tribes now inhabiting the Columbia Plateau can claim a clear enough relationship with the old fellow to demand possession of his bones.

Late last year, McManamon's office commissioned studies from four (white) experts in Northwest Indian lore and language to help determine the chance for establishing such a cultural connection across the millennia: the primary criterion under current law for permitting old remains to be "repatriated" to living relations. Three of the four came down solidly on the Indian side, while the fourth straddled the fence.

Since the law requires only a preponderance of evidence for repatriation, you'd think those results would have settled the matter. But in the K-Man case it's politics, not science or law, which has dominated the course of events. McManamon's own experts recommended against DNA testing the remains to help establish their ethnicity, but DNA testing is under way just the same. There's no reason to expect the new studies (still unpublished, though widely available in bootleg copies) to be treated any differently.

Life has had its rocky moments for other members of the extraordinary cast of characters who have kept the K-Man drama a perennial media favorite. In early April, James Chatters, the Richland anthropologist who rode to international notoriety on claims that the K-Man exhibited a "Caucasoid," not Native American, physiognomy, played the same card again—this time suggesting that an old skull long resident in a Central Washington University anthro lab was a close K-Man cousin.

Unfortunately, the announcement, made at an archaeological conference in Spokane, didn't live up to its advance billing. No evidence was presented that "Stick Man" (Chatters' nickname) had ever lived in the Northwest; "It could just as easily be an undocumented lab specimen from Southeast Asia," grumbled one disappointed attendee.

There may be no connection, but it is a fact that following the fizzle over Stickie in Spokane, Stick Man copresenter Steven Hackenberger was voted out of the CWU anthro department chair by his fellow anthropologists, while Chatters, long an aspirant for promotion from freelance status to a professorship at CWU, failed yet again to score an appointment. With his mentor Hackenberger out of the top job, Chatters' prospects for future employment there don't look good.

For more on K-Man, visit our special coverage page.

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