by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
The mood is decidedly upbeat on this beautiful June day on a bluff above the confluence of the Snake and Palouse rivers. Sixty or so people have gathered, a diverse bunch, tribal members from the Nez Perce, Colville, Yakama, Wanapum, the regional commander and other representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, a number of archaeologists from across the Northwest. Earlier this morning, a few of the Indians had gathered in the basement of College Hall, the home of WSU’s anthropology department, with Wanapum leader Rex Buck Jr. as he blessed the remains of their ancestors they were about to rebury.
Now, on the bluff, while Buck and other elders sing, a couple of younger men pass boxes of bones to another man in a freshly dug grave. He gently sets the boxes down and covers them with tule mats. He climbs out and various men take shovels and start reburying the ancestors, this time they hope for good. Some of these remains had lain just upriver from here for 10,000 years. But their original graves are now deep under the waters backed by the Lower Monumental Dam. At least, say the elders, now they are back in the ground where they belong.
If you climb the rise to the east of the burial site and look down on the Palouse River, you can see a curved hollow of basalt, all that remains above water of the ancestors’ home. From the floor of the rock shelter, now 40 feet underwater, and the floodplain before it, WSU archaeologists in the 1960s recovered the remains of at least 45 people, some more than 10,000 years old. After measurement and study, the remains had been stored, under the authority of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on the WSU campus.
Across the country, over the last two decades the movement of native remains has reversed, moving since the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Recovery Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 from storage back to the Earth. NAGPRA legislation requires federal agencies and entities that receive federal funding to return human remains and cultural items in their possession to their affiliated people. According to NAGPRA figures, as of last year more than 38,000 human remains had been repatriated. However, it is estimated that another 118,000 are still in museum storage.
Although archaeologists now use careful protocols for handling human remains, earlier practice was not so discreet. Convinced that the collection of Indian skeletons could serve science, early archaeologists and other collectors gathered bones from battlefields and old cemeteries and sold them or sent them back east to the Smithsonian Institution. As Franz Boas, the “father” of American anthropology, wrote, “It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use, someone has to do it.”
The Marmes remains were recovered and stored at WSU under less cavalier circumstances, part of an intense campaign to save them and other remains from inundation.
What also sets the Marmes remains apart from most repatriated remains is their great age. Most repatriated remains are relatively recent. It is not unusual for a modern Indian to have attended the reburial of his or her great-grandparents. The extraordinary age of the Marmes remains tested the NAGPRA language that requires establishment of “cultural affiliation” for the remains to be reclaimed by tribal representatives.
Nevertheless, in 2006, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and the Wanapum Band joined in submitting a NAGPRA claim for the return of all human remains and funerary objects from the Marmes collection. The remains, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were stored at WSU. At first, the Corps denied the request for certain remains because they did not fall under the act’s definition of “Native American.”
The tribes disputed the ruling and insisted there was a clear affiliation to the Palus people—and therefore to the claimant tribes, all of whom had clear relations to the Palus, whose main village was long located at the confluence of the Snake and Palouse rivers.
The tribes commissioned independent archaeologist Darby Stapp, who has three decades of archaeological experience in the Columbia River drainage, to assess the Corps’s determination that the remains were not Native American. As the assessment was nearly finished, however, the Corps reversed its decision and determined that the remains were affiliated to the Palus people and were also “Native American,” though it should be noted that NAGPRA considers these as two separate designations.
The establishment of cultural affiliation is based on several factors. Geography is a major one. The Palouse River canyon, as Stapp points out in his report, is “one of the longest occupied and culturally rich landscapes in the southern Plateau.” The Palus have long occupied the area, and the main village at the confluence of the Palouse and Snake was still occupied at the turn of the 20th century.
Biological evidence for affiliation relied mainly on the simple description of remains by WSU physical anthropologist Grover Krantz:
“The remains are of modern Homo sapiens anatomy and do not differ in any determinable way from recent North American Indians. They are meso- to brachycephalic, rather thick vaulted, and had shovel-shaped incisors.” The “shovel-shaped” incisors are a trait shared by most American Indians.
In addition, cremation burial, which was practiced at the Marmes site, is recognized as a long tradition in the mid-Columbia River region. Other recognized practices found at the site are the use of red ochre and Olivella shells as adornment in burials.
Finally, an additional cultural artifact that led to determining affiliation was an owl foot. Perhaps some kind of talisman, the foot had a hole drilled at one end. As Brent Hicks argues in his 2004 report on the project, “Something must have held the bones together such that they remained articulated.” Not only was the owl foot obviously important to whomever had modified it, it was a common symbol throughout Plateau cultures.
Archaeological and oral tradition also figured into the conclusion, and in June, the remains were reburied.
A late-Pleistocene Northwest
Authorized, along with the three other Lower Snake River dams, by the River and Harbors Acts of 1945, then blocked by President Eisenhower in 1953, but restored through efforts by Washington senator Warren Magnuson, construction of Lower Monumental Dam began in 1961. The next year, Washington State University archaeologist Richard Daugherty and his colleagues received a federal grant to explore the archaeological significance of the Palouse River Canyon, which would be flooded by the dam’s reservoir.
Daugherty had first explored the lower Palouse River in 1952 with local rancher John McGregor. McGregor showed him a number of rock shelters and caves. One of them was on land owned by Roland Marmes.
Daugherty began work in the canyon in 1962, with the intention of excavating the Palus village site near the confluence of the Snake and Palouse. But he soon decided that the village site was too disturbed to yield an accurate study.
After some further exploration Daugherty was drawn back to the Marmes site and, with geologist Roald Fryxell and a student crew, began excavating.
Over the next few field seasons, workers uncovered nearly 800 artifacts, food storage pits, and 11 human burials. In 1965, in order to better understand the timescale beneath them, Fryxell had Roland Marmes dig a trench with his bulldozer into the floodplain in front of the shelter. When the bulldozer had dug down 12 feet, Fryxell noticed a chip of bone.
He soon found a concentration of two dozen small pieces, some of them charred. Bones that deep must be very old. But there was no way to prove that they had not been dislocated by the bulldozer. Fryxell returned later with help, and they found more fragments, these clearly in their original context. Still, they were small and difficult to identify. But finally, a year and a half after the first bulldozed discovery, Carl Gustafson, the faunal expert on the dig, was able to identify many of them, including a skull fragment, as human. It was clear by now that this was a very old habitation.
Meanwhile, construction of the dam proceeded.
In 1968, Fryxell and students unearthed bone tools, animal bone, and human bones, between layers of Glacier Peak ash estimated to have been deposited 10,000 years B.P. (before present). Radiocarbon dating of shells in the same level was 10,750 +/- 100 BP.
By this time, the Marmes remains had become the best documented human remains of the late Pleistocene in the new world.
In a quest for more federal support, Daugherty and Fryxell took “Marmes Man” bones to Washington, D.C. An announcement of the find was made public through Senator Magnuson’s office.
Back at the dig, by August the ensuing publicity resulted in extensive media coverage and thousands of visitors to the site every week. This at a location that is not exactly on the road to anywhere.
Regardless, a federal supplemental appropriations bill for protecting the site was defeated in committee. But Daugherty and Fryxell enlisted Magnuson’s help to win support from the Corps of Engineers to continue the dig. Magnuson also persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to sign an executive order authorizing $1.5 million to the Corps of Engineers to build a coffer dam around the site to protect it from the impending flooding.
Unfortunately, a layer of gravel beneath the site compromised the coffer dam. When the Lower Monumental Dam closed in February 1969, the water within the coffer dam rose nearly as quickly as the main reservoir. The WSU crew frantically began lining excavation pits with plastic and then backfilling to protect the surfaces against the water’s turbulence.
An enormous amount of knowledge had been gleaned from the Marmes Rockshelter. Even with the tragic curtailment of its exploration, the site still gave an extraordinary picture of the region’s last 10,000 years of climate and environmental change and cultural history.
It can only be surmised how much more could have been learned had Lower Monumental Dam not flooded the site. On the other hand, the damming of the lower Snake River actually provided much of the impetus, both scientific and financial, for exploring the Marmes Rockshelter as well as other sites doomed to flooding.
Now, 40 years later, the human remains that gave the dig its meaning are beyond further study, reburied on a hill just downriver from their original resting place.
Who owns the past?
Richard Daugherty, who retired from WSU in 1985 after an iconic career, now lives in Lacey, Washington, with his wife Ruth Kirk. Kirk was the first to chronicle the Marmes dig in her 1970 book The Oldest Man in America. With her then-husband Louis Kirk, she had built a career documenting the natural and native history of the West. In 1978, they had co-authored Exploring Washington Archaeology (revised edition released in 2007 as Archaeology in Washington, University of Washington Press), the most comprehensive treatment of the state’s remarkable archaeology. Following the deaths of their spouses, Daugherty and Kirk expanded their professional relationship into marriage.
I visited with them at their home this summer. Even though I had explained the reason for my visit, it was clear that Daugherty had not known that the Marmes remains had actually been reburied, and a long silence followed my account of the reburial.
The Marmes remains, he began, with considerable emotion in his voice, shed light on “the population of the whole new world. And to destroy that evidence, to me, is just unacceptable.”
The Marmes remains were very fragile when they were removed from the site. Because of soil acidity and moisture, putting them back directly in the ground guarantees their final disintegration.
“I understand it if you’re looking at it from an emotional point of view. But look at it from the standpoint of cultural history, of Native Americans in the New World. These things should be protected at all costs.”
Daugherty suggests the idea of building a mausoleum, “where these things can be placed under proper conditions for survival.” Assign caretakers. Make the place sacred.
Over his career, Daugherty has encountered many human remains. In fact, with the Ozette dig on the Olympic Peninsula, by working closely with Ed Claplanhoo ’56, leader of the Makah Tribe at the time, and other tribal members, Daugherty helped establish a new standard for cooperation between archaeologists and tribes.
“When we’d start on a project,” he recalls, “I’d make it clear that we were not looking for human remains, but there was a good chance we will find them.”
At Ozette, when the archaeologists encountered remains, “We would examine them for evidence of violence, of age, et cetera.” Then the Makahs would retrieve the remains for a burial ceremony.
There is a distinction, however, as Kirk points out. The Ozette remains were no more than 300-400 years old. The affiliation with the Makahs was clear, and many in Neah Bay were directly related to the residents of Ozette. Above all, Ozette was not a burial ground, as was much of the Marmes area.
What if, asks Daugherty, we come up with a new analytical technique that could help place the Marmes people in a genetic context. If the bones were preserved, we could negotiate some protocol for re-examining them, possibly shedding more light on the populating of the New World.
“This is something I spent my whole life working on, and I can understand yes, when you get human remains, they become a sacred thing. But I think there can be an accommodation. If they build a structure, a facility that will house this material, it’s available a thousand years from now.
“Thinking of it from the standpoint of the Indians themselves, I think they ought to be concerned that the remains of the earliest ancestors really should be preserved ... I can see what they might want to do is say, we should take care of these.”
That’s exactly the attitude of Rex Buck Jr., the Wanapum elder and spiritual leader who has been a leader in the repatriation of the Marmes and other remains. But his idea of taking care of his ancestors lends a much different perspective.
We visited at the Public Utility District headquarters near the Priest Rapids Dam, just downriver from the dam and the Wanapum village. The Wanapum (which means “river people”) band never signed a treaty and is not a federally recognized tribe. When Lewis and Clark traveled through the area, the Wanapums numbered more than 2,000. Now their numbers have dwindled to fewer than a hundred. Their traditional fishing grounds, Priest Rapids and the entire stretch of the Columbia between the Tri-Cities and Vantage, now lie deep under the backwaters of the dams. In exchange for that loss, the PUD provides jobs and housing.
Buck believes it is his and his people’s responsibility to “take care of the land, the resources, the ancestors, the things that are important.” Taking care of the ancestors means making sure they are safe in the ground.
“We believe we were put here, we have a responsibility here. We just want to take care of it, because it’s our law.”
Under NAGPRA, in order to repatriate remains, tribes have to show “cultural affiliation.” Establishing that affiliation over 100 or 200 years is one thing. Over 10,000 years is entirely another.
Admittedly, establishing cultural affiliation over 10,000 years seems something of a stretch.
“In our world view,” says Anthropology Museum director Mary Collins in agreement. Collins was the main liaison for coordinating the repatriation of remains held at WSU.
“Just for fun,” she continues, “I like to ask people where they would put that mark,” that is, of how far back one might accept some cultural connection.
“In my informal survey, people put it at about 2,000 years. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions, but that’s the birth of Christ.”
Time weaves amongst all conversation regarding affiliation and repatriation, and its nature had long eluded me.
“We believe our knowledge goes way way back,” says Buck. “Time is not what we’re thinking about. We’re still here, still the same.”
Speaking of tribal elders, Buck says, “The deep ties they have to their ancestors are the same ties they have to their children. It’s no different.”
When the earliest of the Marmes people lived there, more than 10,000 years ago, the population of the entire Earth is estimated to have been no more than about 5 million. We have no idea how many people lived in the Americas. Even if the earliest migration models are correct, the North American population was still very sparse. Obviously, the scientific desire to answer the questions of origins and migration routes is a major point of contention.
However, says Michael Finley, business council chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes. “We as a people know who we are. We don’t need science to tell us that. We know where we came from.
“For us, cultural affiliation goes back as far as it needs to go. We believe we’re here, we’re always here.”
Deep time and a little respect
Having attended several repatriation ceremonies, having been given a glimpse of this very different culture that lives alongside ours, I can at least begin to understand this perspective. When the ancestors’ bones are returned to the earth, there is a very palpable sense of timelessness and empathy.
Still, like Daugherty, I can’t help but wonder what the bones could tell if some more sophisticated technique were developed. What is it about our craving to understand and put all the pieces together scientifically? Why do we so need to understand origins and migrations and the nature of these early inhabitants? What if the Marmes remains enabled us to understand, at least a little more, the deep time of this landscape? What if they could be tied genetically to populations elsewhere in North America, or to Siberian populations, or Ainu—or Kennewick Man?
The remains of Kennewick Man were discovered by a couple of teenagers watching hydroplane races along the Columbia River near Tri-Cities in 1996. First treated as a possible recent crime victim, the remains were examined by independent archaeologist James Chatters ’71 and subsequently discovered through carbon dating to be more than 9,000 years old. Plateau tribes claimed the remains, but their appeal was rejected by the courts. The remains of Kennewick Man are stored at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. A group of scientists examined the remains extensively in 2005. A final report is still pending.
The analysis of mitochondrial DNA has developed into a powerful tool for molecular archaeologists such as WSU’s Brian Kemp. I asked him by email if he believed anything had been lost to our scientific knowledge by reburying the Marmes remains.
Kemp replied from Denmark, where he was studying a new, more powerful variation on the technique he employs in his laboratory. He wrote that when he arrived at WSU a few years ago, he was intrigued by the Marmes remains. He studied photographs of the bones in Ruth Kirk’s Oldest Man in America and decided the bones were simply too old and too fragile to yield anything to his investigation.
But now, with new techniques? He suggests that maybe now, with a new tool in his toolbox, he might be able to tease more information out concerning their genetic links and kinship.
But that is moot, he points out. When the bones went back in the ground, that was the end of the story.
“Ten years ago, I would have come down on the Doc [Daugherty] side of it,” says Collins. “Very old remains, belongs to everybody, and so on.”
However, in spite of the seeming promise of such ancient remains, she says, “No one has given me a convincing argument of what they’re going to find.
“After all the argument, all we could say about Kennewick Man, he was a middle-aged man who lived a hard physical life and ate fish.”
The roots of disagreement regarding ancestral remains—whether recent or ancient—are deep. But the emotional impact is simple.
“Think about if someone went and dug up someone from your family and put them on a shelf,” says Finley. “We’re human, too. We just want the same respect.
“If someone went and dug up a person from this country’s history, George Washington, whoever€¦ Well, it’s been done with our chiefs.”
The conflict is infused with issues of race, says Collins. “It’s the ‘othering’ aspect.”
Collecting artifacts and bones was once a Sunday picnic kind of thing to do, she says. There was a big group in Pullman that collected with no sense that the activity was inappropriate. And because archaeologists craved the contextual information, they were willing to work with them.
The cultural disconnect extended to the salvage of sites, including cemeteries, from the dams. Corps of Engineers files contain letters from native people asking the Corps to please not move the cemeteries, their relatives. But the policy assumption was that since white cemeteries were being relocated, so should the Indian cemeteries.
“But then when they did move them,” says Collins, “they did not bring in morticians [as with the white cemeteries], but archaeologists.
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