The historical perspective that is the core of David’s book makes the positions of the adversaries in the Kennewick Man dispute more understandable. I expected a telling of the controversy surrounding Kennewick Man, and perhaps some suggestions about what the remains mean to theories concerning the peopling of the New World. What I got was a lucid history of the stormy relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists that forms a good part of the background for the Kennewick Man controversy. David goes some distance (maybe too far)to be charitable to all the players in this scientific soap opera.
He makes it clear, however, that Native American remains are part of Native American history and identity, not specimens to be mined for cranial measurements and loopy inferences about intellectual capability. I am left with a nagging question that David doesn’t address, but is at the center of this controversy: how do we KNOW the affiliation of human remains? Surely NAGPRA can’t ascertain affiliation, although it can apparently assign it. In the absence of some rigorous examination of remains by qualified individuals we are left with the prospect of conflicting claims that characterizes “Kennnewick Man: The Soap”.
Don’t waste your time!
Order your assignment!
If affiliation is determined by legislative fiat or dueling attorneys, we all lose. Classifying remains as Native American because they are found in North America does some violence to common sense – are Toyotas indigenous because we find them here? Vine DeLoria’s views notwithstanding, the peopling of the New World remains a story to be told. It is possible that the Americas were peopled more than once by groups from parts of the world that conventional wisdom has long dismissed. David closes his book with the account of a collaborative project in Alaska that offers a real alternative to the disputes surrounding Kennewick Man.
Hopefully such cooperation will be a model for archaeological research, and the picture of Native American prehistory that it renders will be more complete because of its inclusiveness. All in all, a superb read that encourages us to examine our motives and to recall the obscenities that have occurred in the past, and almost certainly will occur again, for “Science”. Dr. Thomas’ discussion on pages 57-58 of the Army Medical Museum’s role in collecting human remains is misleading. The Museum (now the National Museum of Health & Medicine) was established in 1862, during the American Civil
War, to begin the study of military medicine and surgery in wartime. It was not established at the urging of Professor Agassiz. US Army Surgeon General Hammond’s orders pertained specifically to collecting the remains of Union and Confederate soldiers, who were overwhelmingly white, to study surgery before the era of x-rays or aseptic surgery. Thousands of specimens were sent into the Museum, including General Daniel Sickles’ leg, which he personally had shipped after it was struck by a cannon ball and amputated.
The specimens were studied and used to compile the six-volume study, The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. After the war, the Museum did expand its collecting focus and collected Indian anthropological artifacts and remains. The artifacts were deposited with the Smithsonian Institution, based on an agreement the Smithsonian proposed in 1869. Human remains were transferred to the Medical Museum, where they were kept and studied side by side with those of American soldiers.
The Museum continued collecting Native American remains until the late nineteenth century when the role was returned to the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains today. David Hurst Thomas has produced an amazing book in Skull Wars. It is at once a serious scholarly history of the relationship between archaeologists and Native Americans and at the same time a good read, accessible to an informed public. Thomas tells it like it is when it comes to this history. As he points out it is a history that archaeologist cannot be proud of.
He does an excellent job of demonstrating how the colonial context of archaeology shaped the actions of scholars to bad ends, often despite their good intentions. Those individuals who call for a more balanced account of this history only wish to deny or cover up the ugly truth. Thomas is if anything too kind to many of the key figures of early archaeology and in the recent Kennewick controversy. As Thomas argues archaeologists need to learn from this history and not simply hide behind naive good intentions. Thomas demonstrates how informed archaeologists can work with Native American people to build common ground and interests.
He shows us how we can go beyond the controversy to link good intentions with good actions. I cannot verify or deny Thomas’ comments on the Asatru religion but the reviews that react so negatively to them are focusing in on only a couple of paragraphs in the book. These comments have little to do with the overall point of the book or its content. Virtually no professional archaeologists accept the idea that there is evidence for Norse or other European settlement or exploration in North American much before AD 900 or that these explorations extended beyond the east coast of Canada.
Even the theory advanced by a few archaeologists that paleolithic Solutrian peoples from the Iberian Peninsula may have crossed the arctic ice to become the North American Clovis culture has been recently dismissed in American Antiquity. As a professional archaeologist and a scholar who has written extensively on relationships between archaeologists and Native Americans I welcome this readable account. It is a book that should be read by anyone interested in North American archaeology and I hope that it will become required reading of all archaeology students.