Attorneys contend Clinton administration had improper contacts over ancient bones
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Scientists who want to study the ancient skeleton known as Kennewick Man contend the Clinton administration improperly tried to prevent their research to avoid a messy debate over how the first inhabitants of North America arrived.
The government allowed ”inexcusable” contacts between White House staff and members of five American Indian tribes who sought to bury the skeleton, said documents filed in federal court Monday to support the scientists.
The Interior Department decided last year that the nearly complete 9,000-year-old skeleton should be given to the tribes for burial.
A spokeswoman for the Interior Department said the agency will formally respond in court on May 17, the deadline to file a response. But officials say they did nothing wrong.
”We believe all contacts were proper and consistent with statute and administrative practice,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna.
A coalition of five Northwest tribes claimed the skeleton after it was found in 1996 along the shoreline of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash. The tribes say Kennewick Man is their ancestor and the bones should be reburied.
But eight prominent scientists from universities and the Smithsonian Institution sued for the right to study the skeleton. The scientists say further study of Kennewick Man could reveal clues about the first humans on the continent.
Attorneys for the scientists say the Interior Department under President Clinton and former Secretary Bruce Babbitt violated ethical standards, alleging officials ”coached the coalition on how to plead its case.”
The scientists argue that the decision to hand over the bones did not meet requirements of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act because the government cannot prove the bones belong to an ancestor of any living tribe.
Attorneys Alan Schneider and Paula Barran also say the government violated the separation of church and state by using religious tribal beliefs to make critical decisions.
They contend the government accepted tribes’ religious beliefs ”as the ‘truth’ of past events” contrary to scientific information, and started and ended at least one consultation with prayer, conveying ”a message of endorsement.”
Burying the bones would violate the First Amendment, Schneider argues, because ”this skeleton is like a book” that should be made available for study.
”It is not for the government to determine who can read the book and what can be done with the information that can be obtained from it,” Schneider said Wednesday.
The scientists have already argued the Interior Department violated the National Historic Preservation Act when it covered the site where the skeleton was found with 500 tons of rocks and soil, then planted trees and shrubs before anthropologists could conduct further excavation.
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