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Anthropology: the great divide


Sunday, October 7, 2007 - Page updated at 01:02 AM
Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Anthropology: the great divide

In the fall of 1996, anthropologist Richard Jantz e-mailed fellow scientists with a plea to help save history.

The University of Tennessee professor urged colleagues to challenge the federal decision to give the 9,300-year-old remains that became known as Kennewick Man to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla for burial. In Jantz's view, the Army Corps of Engineers was about to slam shut a critical window into America's past.

In Seattle, archaeologist Julie Stein read the e-mail with disdain. She had had enough of the ham-handed handling of the unusual case of the remains found on the shores of the Columbia River in southeastern Washington. Then-curator of the Burke Museum of Natural History, Stein had spent 14 years studying Washington archaeology and building relationships with local tribes.

She fired back, chiding Jantz for the effort and alleging the Benton County coroner's local consulting anthropologist, who collected the remains, had attempted to mislead the tribes and the corps by saying they belonged to a recent European settler. She also noted hand bones were submitted for carbon-dating without proper consultation with tribes.

"This is an example of why every tribe in the United States should mistrust and detest archaeologists," she said. "This write-in campagne (sic) of yours is targeted toward the wrong individual.

"Disgustedly yours, ... " she concluded.

Neither Jantz nor Stein knew it then, but the Kennewick Man case would gain international renown — and its accompanying controversy would highlight not only the conflict between principals of scientific inquiry and tribal sovereignty but also a deep professional divide within American anthropology.

Jantz would join seven other scientists to successfully sue the corps in federal court for the right to study the remains, testing the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Stein would become director of the University of Washington's Burke Museum, the very place where the remains were moved after a federal judge found the Corps of Engineers was permitting tribes unauthorized access when they were stored in Richland.

Eleven years later, Jantz and Stein — both respected scholars who work with tribes on repatriation issues involving return of remains and artifacts to tribal descendants — remain on opposite sides of an ideological divide that is familiar among anthropologists. At Stanford University, the chasm was so insurmountable the anthropology department split into two.

Franz Boas, considered the father of American anthropology, might be disappointed in the direction of what he envisioned as an amalgam of four approaches: cultural and social anthropology, physical and biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. He did much to elevate anthropology to a level characterized by scholarly inquiry rather than bone collecting for collecting's sake.

That multipronged approach still is the ideal. And it has been successfully applied in other areas, such as in the case of the Tlingit-approved study of human remains 1,000 years older than Kennewick Man. Tribal elders and anthropologists cooperated constructively to shed light on history. The study of Kuwóot yas.éin showed that, more than 10,000 years ago, people in what is now Southeast Alaska were seafaring and likely had trading systems.

The rift in academia broadly breaks down between the scientists whose work relies more on calipers, data and tables, and those whose work relies more on relationships with modern Native Americans.

As Audie Huber, a lead expert on the Kennewick Man case for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, ruefully noted: "If you want to study dead Indians, you have to work with living ones."

The tensions are exacerbated by the dark history of anthropology — past horrific propensities, including 19th-century governmental orders to collect Native American remains. There are also the erroneous efforts of some scientists more than a century ago to use skull dimensions to suggest racial superiority — a movement Boas himself famously worked to counter.

At the extremes, one school of thought insinuates dark, possibly racist intentions of scientists under sway of their Eurocentric biases, linear thinking and arrogance in their dealings with modern tribes. The other school is dismissive of the slaves to political correctness and their warm and fuzzy research — or, as one physical anthropologist smirked to another: "What do you think? Are cultural anthropologists scientists?"

Not even Condoleezza Rice, now the U.S. secretary of state, could surmount this divide as it manifested at Stanford a decade ago. Then the university's provost, Rice was faced with a huge breach in the anthropology department.

On one side were cultural and social anthropologists, generally humanists interested in interpreting living cultures. On the other side were anthropologists who used more traditional scientific methods to study the role of human evolution in culture.

Troubled by the bitter feuding, Rice installed her vice provost temporarily in charge of the department. Visiting teams of prominent anthropologists arrived to counsel the two factions but to no avail.

By 1998, Rice reluctantly approved divorce papers. Stanford now has two anthropology departments — the more data-driven Department of Anthropological Sciences and the more relationship-driven Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology.

Many say Stanford's experience is unusual and that the fight was exacerbated by personality differences. Still, anthropologists readily concede the discomfiting divide and say they fit somewhere in the middle, torn between the two approaches and striving for a balance.

Such roiling tensions have been a prominent back story in the Kennewick Man case ever since Stein sent that e-mail to Jantz.

The Kennewick case — Bonnichsen v. United States — is the namesake of the late Robson Bonnichsen, who became the lead plaintiff-scientist fighting for the right to study the bones.

With much fanfare in 1991, Oregon State University had welcomed from Maine Bonnichsen and his Center for the Study of the First Americans. Happy press releases celebrated the work of the center and the attention it would attract to the Corvallis campus.

But 10 years later, when Bonnichsen uprooted his center and its endowment and transplanted it to Texas A&M University, the OSU press office was silent. Many of his colleagues could not have been happier.

Because of his role in the Kennewick case, Bonnichsen became decidedly unwelcome in Oregon State's anthropology department. He found his assignments changed and he was no longer assigned graduate students nor included in department meetings. He filed a grievance and won, friends said, although the university would not confirm the personnel issue. He grew frustrated with unkept fundraising promises used to lure him to OSU, friends said.

The disgruntlement boiled over into the pages of the Corvallis Gazette-Times, where five OSU colleagues publicly criticized the department's odd man out. Their letter to the editor alluded to Bonnichsen's role in the Kennewick case and noted specifically the signers' differing point of view.

"Lawsuits filed by anthropologists against Indian tribes are extremely damaging and not a useful way to resolve differences of opinion," said the letter. Among the signatories was David McMurray, the current department chairman and a cultural anthropologist.

It concluded: "We hope Oregonians will remember that the scientific community does not speak with one voice, and that there are anthropologists who recognize and respect world views other than their own."

As if Bonnichsen and his co-plaintiffs, many of whom work with tribes on repatriation issues, did not.

When you sit with Stein or Jantz for an hour, they seem to agree about more than they don't. But, both acknowledge they are on different sides of the spectrum.

Stein's view was shaped by hours and hours she spent in required consultation with tribal members after state and federal laws were enacted that suddenly gave Native Americans rights where there had been none. In the early 1990s, she was moved, emotionally and professionally, by tribal members' exasperation with anthropological practices in Washington.

Among them was the controversial handling of the extensive and renowned East Wenatchee cache of Clovis projectile points, found in 1989. Later, tribal members were insulted by the atrocious actions of a rogue archaeologist who stole the remains of about 40 people from a Lummi burial ground — the planned site of a Blaine city wastewater treatment plant — breaking federal and state laws. The Kennewick Man case was only another challenge to the trust she and others were attempting to build.

"It was a real cultural experience for me," Stein remembers. "The floodgates that had been opened by the passing of these laws, no one had anticipated.

"People are at different places on that spectrum, depending on their seat time in consultation."

Jantz, on the other hand, believes the quest for knowledge should take precedence over spiritual beliefs related to ancestral remains. Two years ago, he suggested in a Seattle Times op-ed column congressional efforts that might limit scientific study based on the spiritual beliefs of modern Native Americans violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"To many, it is unthinkable for Congress to pass a law restricting or prohibiting scientific research because it might prove contradictory to biblical creationists' cherished beliefs about how the world was made and the human species came into existence," he wrote. "Surely, no legislation should demand emptying our museums of all evidence of early peoples' lives because some citizens find offensive research that might contradict their worldview," he wrote.

When you ask other anthropologists to pick a side, they usually pause before grappling with this complex snarl of scientific inquiry and cultural sensibility.

"People do have a view that is black and white, or red and white as the case may be," said Joe Watkins, an anthropologist who is Choctaw Indian. Now the director of the Native American Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma, he wrote about the East Wenatchee controversy in his book, "Indigenous Archaeology."

"As a scientist, I believe the information is available and we should have it," Watkins said. "As a humanist, I think that has to be tempered with human concerns."

Alison Wylie, an ethicist who holds appointments in both the University of Washington's philosophy and anthropology departments, says anthropology in America is laboring under its legacy "as a colonial enterprise." The flashpoints, like Kennewick, seem to put people to drawing lines that divide instead of unite.

"A lot of people can see themselves in the picture," Wylie said. "It's a damned shame they didn't figure out a way to do it better."

One way might have been to follow the law — the repatriation law was passed in 1990. And both Stein and Jantz have a point that the law was not scrupulously followed.

Stein argues compellingly that the tribes should have been consulted immediately. Jantz and the other plaintiffs would not have brought their lawsuit — and prevailed in federal court — if the Corps of Engineers had followed the repatriation law. Corps officials almost immediately decided to return the Kennewick Man remains to the tribe without establishing affiliation with modern tribes, as required by the law.

The early ill-advised steps put factions within anthropology on a collision course that has left many involved disappointed. Efforts continue in Congress to change the law that sided with Jantz and his colleagues — with the support of some anthropologists.

Without shrewd evaluation, those efforts could foreclose history. There ought to be room for respectful study and the kind of multidiscipline collaboration that Boas envisioned.
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