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  • The Extermination of Kennewick Man's Authenticity through Discourse
  • Cynthia-Lou Coleman (bio)

When pieces of a skeleton were unearthed in the Pacific Northwest in 1996, the discourse surrounding its origins revealed deeply held values and led to questions and judgments of what constitute Native American cultural affiliation and authenticity. This essay explores one of those threads—authenticity—and how its meanings unraveled in the social discourse surrounding the discovery of what North American Indian tribes called the Ancient One, who is popularly known as Kennewick Man. By examining news reports, television programs, tribal websites, legal documents, and empirical literature about the case, I show how the construction of Kennewick Man's authenticity through discourse is infused with "referentials"—a term Jean Baudrillard used to illustrate how signs, images, and simulations are substituted for the original, and how referents in mediated form replace the original. Baudrillard claimed that we come to know the real through the "imaginary" in a world where "referentials combine their discourses in a circular, Möbian compulsion."1 That is, Baudrillard uses as metaphor the Möbius strip—a picture that tricks the eye (a trompe-l'oeil)—which confuses the viewer by making the boundaries of an object vague. Similarly, social discourse is an illusion, confusing the viewer by reimagining boundaries. This essay, therefore, examines the boundaries around strips of discourse in an attempt to locate the sutures that stitch the authentic with the fake. I argue that mediated discourse has effectively exterminated the authenticity of Kennewick Man. [End Page 65]

In addition I extend previous theoretical discussions about the discourse surrounding Kennewick Man by examining the biopolitical underpinnings of the case study, arguing that discourse has been delivered largely in a biopolitical vein, imbued with meanings that arise from the infusion of the biological with the political. Michel Foucault elaborated that "biopolitics" concerns the management of "life" through political means, including the definition of "life" and "death" in ways that allow political oversight.2 For example, Peter Andrée described biopolitics as "modern relations of power, rooted in specific expert truth-claims and material practices that enable the regulation and efficient production of 'life' by scientists, governments, and industries, as well as the forms of resistance that emerge in this context."3 When issues such as the discovery of Kennewick Man unfold in media contexts, claims of truth, objectivity, and authenticity assume these biopolitical dimensions.4

The Discovery

The skeleton—dubbed Kennewick Man by news reporters—was found by accident on a summer day in Kennewick, Washington, when two college students were wading across the Columbia River to sneak into the annual boat races.5 One lad stumbled over what turned out to be a human skull. After waiting for their beer buzz to wane, the students reported the find to officials, and local law enforcement extracted a nearly complete skeleton from the river. A freelance anthropologist who lived nearby was asked to examine the remains. James Chatters quickly set to work: he made an impression of the skeleton and skull, and sent off a chunk of bone for carbon dating. Meantime, Kennewick city workers contacted officials who manage the river and natural resources, including members of the Umatilla Tribe, to decide what to do with the skeleton.

When Chatters learned that the remains were more than nine thousand years old—among the oldest ever found in North America—the discovery entered the arenas of news, entertainment, and academic discourse. Chatters later wrote, "I had been given a gift from the past, an opportunity to learn from an ancient ancestor and to convey what he could tell us for future generations."6 But when Chatters heard that local tribes requested the return of Kennewick Man under NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990), he asked for help from fellow anthropologists, who sued for the right to study his "gift." In the decade that followed, attorneys, reporters, politicians, scientists, and Native American activists struggled to make their voices heard in the circuits of discourse.

The discourse surrounding the ancient remains illuminates what [End Page 66] Baudrillard referred to as an unfolding of the hyperreal. That is, the claims to truth were...


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