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What is 'native American'?

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When two teenage hikers came upon the remains of a man's skeleton on the banks of the Columbia River in 1996, little did they know they'd set off a controversy over the meaning of "native American."

Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the bones - named "Kennewick Man" after the nearby town in Washington State - were between 8,340 and 9,200 years old. Initial research found the man to have Caucasoid features, different from today's native Americans although similar to the Ainu people, an indigenous group in northern Japan. Further testing suggests he may have been a Pacific Islander.

Under a 1990 federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a group of Northwestern tribes initially was given authority over the remains. The law's original purpose was to help stop the unfortunate rampant grave-robbing of native American sites for museums and private collections.

A group of scientists sued in the name of doing further research. In their defense, the tribes claimed their oral traditions maintain that their ancestors had lived in the Americas since the beginning of time. Last week, a three-judge panel ruled that the scientific study of Kennewick Man could go forward. The court said that tribes must show a direct relationship to human remains before they can claim authority over them. "Scant or no evidence of cultural similarities between Kennewick Man and modern Indians exists," they wrote.

The court's ruling helps further the quest to determine just who first populated North America and when. In the meantime, Congress should look toward more precisely defining the intent of the 1990 law. It will need to ensure a respect for the ancestral rights of native Americans and any tribe's desire to know more about its history.

Defining just who were the pre-Columbus indigenous people of the Americas is still an open question for science. That effort deserves support until more answers are known.


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