Digging Deeper Into the Kennewick Man Debate
During the summer of 2013, Heritage undergraduate student Jessica Fortunata spent 10 to 12 hours a day digging into a controversial story about human remains found in a local river. She wasn’t investigating a crime with an unsavory conclusion; she was researching the Kennewick Man, an unprecedented archeological discovery that became a source of conflict between local Native American tribes and the scientific community.
Fortunata is a Mellon Fellow, participating in the prestigious Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF), the centerpiece program of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. The program strives to diversify the faculty of college campuses by providing assistance to promising students who want to enter Ph.D. programs. Heritage is one of just seven schools in the western U.S. region to be supported by the foundation. Fortunata was chosen for the two-year fellowship in 2013 and the Kennewick Man was her first summer research project.
“The Kennewick Man is one of the greatest archeological finds on the [North American] continent, and he was found right here in Washington state,” explained Fortunata. “He is older than the Iceman [a well-preserved natural mummy of a man who lived around 3,300 B.C. and discovered in the Ötztal Alps].”
According to Fortunata, she explored what lessons could be learned while researching the public discourse surrounding the Kennewick Man case. Because she lives on traditional tribal lands and Heritage University is located right on the Yakama Indian Reservation, it enabled her to enjoy extensive opportunities for primary contact with diverse populations of both students and community members.
To Whom Does the Kennewick Man Belong?
The Kennewick Man, or “Ancient One,” as he is described by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, was discovered in the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, in 1996. He represents one of the earliest intact skeletons, with an estimated age of 9,500 years old.
“The Kennewick Man case involves some of the most compelling scientific, cultural and legal issues in the Pacific Northwest,” explained Fortunata. “The controversy provoked a compelling expanse of human curiosity, critically questioning the identity, or true origin, of the ancient skeleton.”
The scientific community was excited to learn more about Kennewick Man, but the results set off a firestorm of protests by local Native American tribes that believe he was one of their ancestors and deserved proper burial. The tug of-war for Kennewick Man began.
The Army Corps of Engineers took custody of the remains, but the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation sought resolution for cultural ownership and the indigenous status of the human remains. In response, scientists filed a lawsuit to block the transfer so the remains could be preserved for further study. In 2004, after years of court wrangling, an appeals court upheld an earlier ruling in favor of the scientists; however, the court also granted the Umatilla Tribe’s request to temporarily stop further scientific testing. Today, Kennewick Man is stored at Burke Museum in Seattle, out of the limelight but not forgotten by tribal leaders who still hope for his return.
Fortunata’s Holistic Approach Shares Both Sides of the Story
When Fortunata decided to make the conflict surrounding Kennewick Man her research topic, she received guidance from Heritage Professor Winona Wynn, Ph.D., chair of English and Humanities and coordinator of the university’s Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship.
Part of Wynn’s role as the Mellon coordinator is to open up mentoring opportunities for fellows to support them along their academic path. She encouraged Fortunata to reach out to Steven Hackenberger, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and co-director of the Resource Management Master of Science Program at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, as a potential mentor. Although other students had approached him before and he had declined, he agreed to mentor Jessica because of her unique and more expansive approach to the topic.
“Jessica puts her whole heart and soul into her work,” said Dr. Wynn, who is working with her now to publish her research results. “She has an extraordinary work ethic and an insatiable intellectual curiosity, and that’s something we as mentors look for. It’s exciting to work with a student like that.”
As part of the mentoring relationship, Dr. Hackenberger initially provided Fortunata with a reading list to gain foundational information on the Kennewick Man on which to launch her research. Later, he would read through her research and resources, confer with colleagues on her behalf, and ultimately guide her through her research. She collected and synthesized select primary resources from the Umatilla Nation Tribal Archives, such as legal documents and media reports, as well as from interviews with key people involved in the case at Northwest Anthropology.
She read books, online media reports and newspapers, but she came to realize these sources were not enough.
“Everything I was reading was just public discourse and opinion,” she said. “I even read anthropology journals, but they could only theorize.”
Building a Relationship With the Umatilla Elders
Fortunata decided there would be no complete answers found in pages and pages of other people’s thoughts. She decided to take a bold step: to reach out to the Umatilla tribe directly. Together with Professor Wynn, she made a day trip to the tribe’s cultural center in Pendleton, Oregon, where a tribal librarian helped her locate archived resources that couldn’t be found elsewhere. She also made an appointment with the tribe’s elder and spiritual leader, Armand Minthorn. Minthorn has been at the forefront of the Kennewick Man debate and had been interviewed by various media outlets, including 60 Minutes. He and the other tribal leaders felt the reporting was inaccurate, so Fortunata knew he might be reluctant to talk to her as well.
Wynn remembers the meeting: “Jessica took a different approach with Minthorn. She simply asked him, ‘What do you want the world to know about the Kennewick Man?’”
Fortunata said Minthorn was initially a bit reluctant to work with her. “I’m not Native American,” said Fortunata, “but I am a student who attends school on the Yakama reservation, so that helped. I think they came to accept that I just wanted to share both sides of the story.”
Minthorn ultimately agreed to talk with Fortunata and share the tribal perspective, and in turn, she agreed to share what she wrote with the tribal leaders ahead of time, allowing them to provide feedback and suggest changes.
Research Yields Surprises for Fortunata
Because so much discourse had already been reported about the Kennewick Man remains, Fortunata was unsure just how much new information she would discover. But through her research she began to understand the different perspectives of the scientists and the tribes and saw how much is still left unknown.
“I didn’t expect to find out that even the experts don’t know who he was,” said Fortunata. “I assumed there was a power struggle, but that everyone really knew he was Native American.” The Umatilla Tribe appealed to the court through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA (1990); however, the remains were discovered without associated grave items or other items that might help define his cultural affiliation.
Another thing she learned is that the battle over this prehistoric man goes deeper than who this single person is, because it shapes the tribes’ cultural identities. She explained by sharing a quote from Dr. Hackenberger: “When people question his identity, what they are truly asking is, ‘Who am I?’ Because his life seems so extraordinary, his identity mirrors, extends or magnifies their own.”
Fortunata presented her research at the 2013 MMUF Annual Western Regional Conference hosted at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently working with Dr. Hackenberger and Dr. Wynn to publish her research, and the goal is to submit it to several academic journals this year.
Fortunata Mentoring Continues as She Prepares for Grad School
What is next for Fortunata? According to Dr. Wynn, the sky is really the limit for this ambitious student who plans to earn a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology.
“There are many outreach opportunities for Mellon Fellows,” said Wynn. “There are graduate-school workshops designed to help students as they apply for Ph.D. programs as well as other conferences.”
The rich mentoring relationship Fortunata shares with Dr. Hackenberger and Dr. Wynn will continue during the next stage of her academic career. The hope is that she will one day mirror this mentoring relationship and become a mentor herself when she is part of the professoriate.
“Heritage University already has a mantle of mentoring campus-wide,” explained Wynn. “The Mellon Fellowship expands on that mentoring relationship and guides and supports students as they grasp opportunities available through the program.”
Fortunata has certainly done that. “Jessica is optimistic and has a very real awareness of her opportunities,” said Wynn. “She has amazing ability, and she is persistent and motivated. As her mentors, we are absolutely certain—and we tell her this—that she will earn her Ph.D.”