Kennewick Man and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

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Kennewick Man is one of the most complete ancient skeletons found to date. The discovery initiated scholarly and public debate of the legal and ethical implications of anthropological study of Native American human remains. The Kennewick Man controversy has called into question the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)’s ability to balance tribal, museum, and archaeological interest in ancient human remains.

Kennewick Man was found on July 28, 1996 below Lake Wallula, a section of the Columbia River, in Washington. As the owners of the land, the US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) had initial control of the remains. In early inspections Kennewick man was thought to be an early European settler because of the presence of Caucasoid traits. However the remains were determined to have an age of around 9,000 B.P., much older than any settler, suggesting that the remains could be Native American despite a lack of definitive Native-American characteristics (“McManamon”). Kennewick Man was on his way to the Smithsonian for further study when several tribes asserted claims under The Native American graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to take control of the remains in order to rebury them. In response, COE halted any further study of the remains saying that the Department of the Interior and National Park Service, a federal agency involved with NAGPRA, had determined they were Native American and affiliated with one of the claimant tribes so they were to be handed over to an alliance of five tribes and bands (Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, Wanapum and Colville) through NAGPRA (“United States”).

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is the primary federal law governing the righ...

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