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It’s a Good Day to be Indigenous

Essay by Stephen Lyons

Western Life – January 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

It’s a good day to be indigenous

by Stephen Lyons

FROM THIS MOMENT ON kindly refer to my family as “indigenous.” Or, if you prefer, “First Peoples.” With the discovery of what could be my long-lost European relative — Kennewick Man — it’s time to respect my elders.

Kennewick Man, found in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River near the town of the same name in Washington State, is alleged to have “European features” and is 9,300 years old, thus, pre-dating the initial arrival of Native Americans to the area. In fact, only one set of bones in the United States is older: Senator Strom Thurmond’s.

When forensic anthropologist Jim Chatters briefly examined Kennewick Man, he announced to the world that our ancient guy resembled “Star Trek, the Next Generation” actor Patrick Stewart. But what other clues led Chatters to his controversial determination that this bag of bones was non-Indian?

Perhaps it was the Timex watch, the plastic Big Gulp cup from 7-Eleven, or the Denver Broncos warm-up jacket. Judging by the rampant development in the American West, probably any early Europeans were real estate developers — “Century 21 Men.”

Chatters’ speculation has triggered an avalanche of criticism, some from other scientists, but mostly from a confederation of Northwest tribes who do not want to lose their sovereignty or change the tried and true story that Native Americans arrived first and then we came and screwed up everything. The Confederation wants Kennewick Man returned to them so he and any further scientific specimens can be buried in an undisclosed location, thus preventing any holes being opened into their belief systems.

Tribes cite the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that requires skeletons found in Native American areas to be turned over to the tribes. But the skeleton must be a proven descendant and back then no one kept detailed records.

After pleading his case before the House Resources Committee, Armand Minthorn, leader of Oregon’s Umatilla Tribe, said to the Seattle Times “We are not worried that study of the remains will change history,or cause us to lose our standing in history. We already know what happened 10,000 years ago. We know we have always been there.”

Chatters countered, “We’re seeing a real extremism developing here. The tribes basically are saying that they are in control of all human history in North America. They have always been here, and there are to be no more questions asked.”

Chatters reminds one of a modern-day version of Italian astronomer Galileo, and the tribes are in the unfamiliar position of representing the status quo, the Church. Only 368 years ago, Galileo was forced by Rome to deny the truth — that the earth and all the planets revolve around the sun. In the 1600s his heretical views were too risky to an entire religious belief system. If Chatters’ assumption is correct, Native Americans may have to rewrite their own history, and the odds of that happening is the same as Kennewick Man suddenly rising from his Tupperware coffin to perform an Irish jig.

To prevent any of the above from happening, I’ve come to the rescue with some revisionist history: A handful of restless Europeans arrived in the Northwest 9,300 years ago, but soon left because someone thought he had left a fire burning back home. All except Kennewick Man, who was a poet and not well regarded. He was lying on his back watching cloud formations and composing a long-winded essay about the Missoula Floods when the rest of the clan ditched him. A saber-tooth tiger came along, and the rest is ancient history.

Or, we can just call it a tie. We all arrived about the same time, give or take a thousand years, and most of us hate icy roads.

At the end of October, Kennewick Man was moved under tight security to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle where he will rest while the legal battle continues. Before the move, an exhaustive inventory of the skeleton was performed by a team of researchers. Chatters was not invited to take part — maybe it was the Patrick Stewart remark.

While we await the archaeological verdict, I’m going to work on my new indigenous attitude. After 9,000 years of bad press, I think I deserve some compensation. I want a large tract of land. I want a culture that doesn’t worship mini vans. I want to play basketball with Sherman Alexie. I want the rest of you to copy my rituals, commercialize my culture, and romanticize my every twitch. Now, about those casino profits?

Stephen Lyons is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado ( He lives in Pullman, Washington.