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  • Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity
  • Rebecca S. Graff
Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. By David Hurst Thomas. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in 1831’s Cherokee Nation v. Georgia that “the relation of the Indians to the United States [is] marked by peculiar and cardinal distinctions which exist no where else” (Marshall in Wilkins 1997:21). Yet another peculiar relationship is that which exists between members of Native American tribes and the anthropologists and archaeologists who study them. In Skull Wars archaeologist and museum curator David Hurst Thomas uses the particular case of Kennewick Man as a means to examine the five hundred years of interaction that produced American archaeology, and the contestation for the right to represent Native Americans that has emerged from those interactions.

When a skull was found in a washed-out riverbank near the town of Kennewick, Washington in July 1996, a public argument developed over who had the power to name, represent, and ultimately control the remains. In the book’s foreword historian and activist Vine Deloria, Jr. writes that the Skull Wars aims to be more than just an “apology” to Native Americans. Thomas’ political and ethical stances on the issues contained in the book become evident early on, not only in the disclaimer that proceeds from the book are donated to a fund that assists Native American archaeologists, but also in his decision not to reproduce any depictions of Indian skeletal remains.

After clearly describing the controversy swirling around Kennewick Man, Thomas takes a look at the names and images of Native Americans that have been created by Euroamericans who first met them—from Columbus and the Arawak to the Boston Tea Party participants and the Mohawk Indians whose dress they imitated. Thomas’ take on the use of Indian imagery by Americans to distance themselves from the British strikes one as similar to situations described in the literature on heritage (see Abu El-Haj 1998, Lowenthal 1998, Kohl and Fawcett 1995, and Dietler 1994). A comparison with similar cases of would-be nation-builders appropriating indigenous imagery would further strengthen this argument.

Embedded within the historical context of image appropriation were the early scientists who made the American Indian the subject of their investigations. If Thomas Jefferson became the first American archaeologist when he excavated a mound in Virginia, then he can also be considered, as Thomas suggests, “America’s first scientific grave robber” (35). And if the research questions asked by Johann Blumenbach, Carl Linnaeus, and Samuel Morton fueled an interest in making collections of human crania, it was the “Indian Wars” of the mid-nineteenth century and a permissive United States government policy that helped to establish and stock America’s first large museums. Thus the Skull Wars were not instigated by uneducated pot hunters looking for quick money, but by scientific researchers who wanted to build osteological and related collections of the “vanishing” American Indians.

Looking at the institutionalization and professionalization of anthropology, Thomas points out that even Franz Boas, while surveying tribes in British Columbia in 1888, stated that “[i]t is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use, someone has to do it” (59). If the great figures of our discipline were sometimes literally robbing Indian graves what, then, is the way out of this often unethical mess that is left in American archaeology? One answer for Thomas is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), though he tends to oversimplify the intricacies of NAGPRA and its implementation. Thomas also endorses the example of archaeologist Terry Fifield’s collaborative work on the Tongass Forest Project as “a model of how we [Indians, archaeologists, and agency officials] can work together” (272).

Skull Wars makes a good starting point for further research and a call to ethical action for archaeologists, perhaps because Thomas attempts to address academic as well as educated non-specialist audiences. I am aware of at least one professor who already assigns Skull Wars for a course on Native North America. While Thomas’ treatment of...

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