PORTLAND, Ore. -- Scientists can study the Kennewick Man -- 9,300-year-old remains found in Washington state -- despite the objections of some American Indian tribes, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.
Northwest tribes consider the bones sacred and want to bury them. But the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with a lower court that found the federal grave-protection law does not apply because there is no evidence connecting the remains with any existing tribe.
Kennewick Man has drawn scientific interest because it is one of the oldest, most complete skeletons found in North America and unlike modern Indians.
The bones, found in 1996 on the north bank of the Columbia River by teenagers going to a boat race, are housed at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The Army Corps of Engineers initially agreed with the tribes and seized the bones before they could be transported to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Scientists seeking to study the bones went to court, but then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt ordered the remains returned to the tribes in 2000.
US Magistrate John Jelderks ruled in 2002 that the remains could be studied, and a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based appeals court agreed. The appeals court found that the remains do not fall under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and can be studied under the Archeological Resources Protection Act.
The repatriation law "unambiguously requires that human remains bear some relationship to a presently existing tribe or people or culture to be considered Native American," Judge Ronald M. Gould wrote.
The ruling said it is impossible for a tribe to demonstrate such a relationship with Kennewick Man because the remains date back before any recorded history. The Umatilla, Yakama, Colville, and Nez Perce tribes are seeking the remains.Rob Roy Smith, a Seattle attorney in the firm representing the Colville tribe, called yesterday's decision "a great injustice" and said the tribes will have to decide whether to seek a rehearing or turn to Congress. "The Ninth Circuit turned the statute on its head," Smith said. "The law Congress passed gives tribes the right to prevent the study of remains. What the Ninth Circuit seems to have done is to require the tribes to prove the remains are Native American before the statute applies."