Fall 2004

Leftovers / The Day of the Remains

Philip Scher

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

In 1991, two hikers in the Oetzal region of the Alps on the border between Italy and Austria discovered a frozen, mummified body in the melting ice. Austrian rescuers who arrived on the scene were amazed by the excellent preservation of the corpse, which they guessed was at least 100 years old. Not until the corpse was unceremoniously hacked out of the ice (using a ski pole and a pick axe) and brought (in a hearse) to the University of Innsbruck, Austria, was an archaeologist called in for an opinion. Radiocarbon dating revealed that he was, in fact, 5,300 years old. A stunning array of artifacts found with him represent the most complete habiliments of a Copper Age man ever discovered. His copper axe represents the only example of its kind with the complete fittings intact. His quiver of arrows stands as a unique discovery among ancient finds, and his small “pack” contained stone tools and tinder that were, as far as archaeology goes, in pristine condition. Known as the Iceman in North America, and as Ötzi in Austria where he was a source of enormous pride, the celebrated corpse experienced a dramatic change of fate when it was determined that it had, in fact, been discovered several meters inside the Italian border in a semi-autonomous region called South Tyrol. As a result, the Italians laid claim and won possession of the Iceman in 1998.

In July 1996, two students came across a half-buried skeleton while wading through the shallows of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. Originally thought to be the body of a settler because of the “Caucasian” features of the skull, the body was subsequently examined and found to be 9,300 years old. In compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Army Corps of Engineers sought to return the skeleton to the collective trust of five local Native American tribes for reburial according to their religious practices. However, the outcry from some scientists and archaeologists over the proposed re-interment was quick and furious. These scientists strongly requested that they be allowed to study the bones prior to reburial, with some protesting reburial entirely. They subsequently filed a lawsuit, which was joined by another party, the Asatru Folk Assembly—a group dedicated to the revival of pre-Christian Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic cultures—whose contention was that the skeleton could provide proof of a European presence in North America prior to the Native American arrival. The controversial corpse is known as Kennewick Man.

These finds have much in common. Serendipitous and surprisingly ancient, they caused an immediate sensation in the scientific community and captured the public’s attention as well. But these two discoveries also share another quality. They each excited a controversy about ownership. Underlying these disputes was a question: What sort of identity should be attributed to the deceased themselves?

In the case of the Iceman, the controversy did not turn on religious belief, nor did it affect scientists’ ability to examine the body. Scholars could do their forensic work in Innsbruck as easily as they could in the countries’ capitals. Instead, the Iceman problem was as much about Tyrolean identity as it was about being Italian or Austrian. The Tyrol, a region that straddles the Austrian-Italian border, is home to an ethnic group whose identity has been compromised over the course of a complex history. Its territory has been contested and ruled by various outsiders, including the Hapsburgs, who controlled it until 1918 when its southern region was annexed by Italy following World War I. So was the Iceman a proto-Italian? Or an Austrian-in-the-making? Or was he an Ancient Tyrolean? In the end, the possibility of an ancient, authentic “ur-Tyrolean” so tantalized the identity-starved region of South Tyrol that it mobilized to secure the Iceman for itself. The South Tyroleans allowed the University of Innsbruck to complete their work on the Iceman, but required that the corpse and its artifacts be returned to South Tyrol without ever being displayed in Austria. The 1998 relocation was conducted under armed guard and attended by police helicopters for fear that Austrian nationalists would protest. Subsequently, a museum dedicated to the display of the Iceman was built in the South Tyrolean town of Bolzano.

The iceman after the first recovery attempt by a police officer, 20 September 1991.

In the case of Kennewick Man, the issue was even more complex. No one ever argued that the Iceman should be reburied without scientific analysis; the whole controversy hinged on who would be allowed to display Ötzi as their ancestor. With Kennewick Man, the issue of ancestry is of course crucial, but it is trapped between two incompatible, decidedly cultural perspectives. For some scientists, the issue of Kennewick Man’s “ethnic” ancestry is essentially unimportant. These scientists hold that genetically he is an ancestor to us all, while historically he may shed light on ancient migration patterns and settlement, his connection to specific living populations is of little concern. Along more “ethnic” lines, there are certainly those scientists who note a lack of “Indian” phenotypical marks and therefore wonder whether or not he is “Caucasian.” This position is the one being followed by groups such as Asatru, whose primary interest is in the possibility of his being European. For both sides, Kennewick Man is essential to answering scientific questions that are just as cultural as the concerns being raised by the Native peoples arguing for his reburial.

The most common Native claim is that Kennewick Man is a specific ancestor and digging him up is a desecration, a religious violation. However, there are other voices from the Native community involved in the debate and some of them support at least some cooperation with scientists. NAGPRA itself only covers the reburial of known relatives or bodies that can be attached to specific tribes. NAGPRA has no particular provisions for someone like Kennewick Man, who is simply too old for that determination—a fact that is known, ironically, only through science. Signed into law in 1990 by then-president George Bush, NAGPRA mandates that Native peoples be allowed stewardship over gravesites on tribal lands, and that Native groups recognized by the federal government be consulted when remains likely to be Native American are discovered on federal lands. In the absence of solid proof of Kennewick Man’s connection to any of the contemporary tribes in the region, at least one tactic pursued by Native Americans is to assert that they respect all life, that no one can own another person in life or in death, and that all human remains should stay buried. This is an extremely broad tactic and one not likely to be ultimately effective in securing Kennewick Man’s reburial primarily because in order for NAGPRA to be invoked effectively and for authorities to respect these Native claims, Kennewick Man must be more than simply a body; he must be some specific group’s body.

This is so because not all Native beliefs are the same. The Choctaw, for instance, routinely display skulls of elders in “charnel” houses so that the living may commune with the dead. Remains claimed by the Choctaw from museums, for instance, would not be reburied, but may be redisplayed in a manner commensurate with Choctaw beliefs. Other tribes are actively engaged in their own archaeological research. Their goal is also not to rebury, but to pursue scientific analyses much like non-Native scientists. These groups believe that the human body either lacks sacredness, or possesses a kind of sacredness that does not preclude exposure. Therefore, it must be determined who “owns” Kennewick Man because scientists and some Native peoples do not, at least in this case, share the same views about what to do with remains as the five local tribes claiming Kennewick Man and so need not be subject to those imperatives. Thus Kennewick Man’s ancestry would have to be proven, and his connection to those tribes demanding reburial would need to be secured.

Proving ancestry requires, according to the law, a consistent, unbroken identity as a group. In the case of very ancient skeletons, there is often no attendant cultural or artifactual material to corroborate such a connection. Indeed it has been pointed out that without such material contemporary Natives may end up venerating the body of a traditional enemy. Thus, to be sure, scientific analysis may help determine the link between past and present. Here is where the deep irony of NAGPRA is exposed. The letter of the law necessitates scientific work on Native Americans in order to determine a genetic connection to a living population. But that scientific work obviously contravenes the spirit of the law, which is to respect Native claims of sacrality.

Skull and head reconstruction of Kennewick Man. Modeled by James Chatters. Photos copyright James Chatters.

Thus the issue of who owns ancient remains is fraught with difficulty since it presupposes, even from the outset, that both sides are seeking the same thing. Taking the Kennewick Man case, if Native Americans are asking not for a body but for ancestors, and scientists are withholding not ancestors but data, where is the common ground? Nevertheless, all sides must ultimately participate in a resolution framework that has been constructed by the cultural imperatives of one particular group, i.e. Euro-Americans. Our notion of property does indeed derive from a sense of possessive individualism as a defining quality of human beings: that we are what we own, in some sense. We have constructed a legal world of rights and, recently, fused this notion of rights with cultural relativism; the result has been to understand culture as property, something a person or group of people has a right to own, as if their actions, thoughts, and worldviews were not in large measure constructed by this culture.

Of course the resulting problem here is that ownership rights (themselves a cultural construction) are being attributed to objects, beliefs, and actions (in a relatively undifferentiated way) which themselves construct the subjectivity of both the people asking for these rights and those in the position to give them. But culture is not something you can ask for or give or steal or buy. If we take the notion of culture seriously, we are defined by it thoroughly; it produces us. Asking to preserve it presupposes a consciousness outside of culture that can objectively assess, define, and distribute it. Yet, in the real world, Native remains must be asked to do at least double duty for Native peoples. They must exist as sacred objects, to be treated accordingly, yet they must also stand as proof of Native history and culture. Even to make such claims on remains, the onus is on Native Americans to establish a coherent, unified, and unbroken identity that extends deep into the past, and this forces participation in a cultural world that may be anathema.

The Iceman had a far easier time being laid to rest in his glass case in the South Tyrol because he was the subject of controversy between two parties who at least shared the same basic discourse of national, regional, and ethnic identity and for which there was a generally accepted understanding not only of ownership but of the rights and consequences of ownership. Kennewick Man will have a rougher go of it and the issue is still pending a legal resolution. Since there are so few shared ideas at work with Kennewick Man, and the conversations are at such deeply crossed purposes, no resolution can possibly be satisfactory, even though there are many compromises being sought. The religio-cultural quality of the Kennewick debate is deeply implicated in the incommensurability of the problem. Indeed, Kennewick Man is not an aberration in the legal world. There is a growing concern, globally, about the idea of cultural ownership of remains, artifacts, and even expressive cultural forms such as stories, dances, music, costumes, etc., known as “intangible cultural heritage.” International organizations such as UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organization are at the center of these debates of cultural ownership. What Kennewick Man shows us is that as long as Native Americans seek resolution within a basically Western legal tradition, the cultural issues informing ownership claims may be compromised from the very start.

I would like to thank Brenda Fowler, author of The Iceman, and Doug Kennett and Quent Winterhoff, both of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon, for valuable conversations on these issues.

Philip W. Scher is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon. He has worked on contemporary popular culture in the Caribbean and is currently writing on issues of copyright and culture.