Creationism: not just for Protestants anymore

When we talk about the legal problems of creationism, we tend to focus on the fundamentalist Christian churches, but there are other varieties of creationism out there. There are even creationists among Indian tribes, and they are also causing problems for scientists. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (“NAGPRA,” 25 U.S.C. §§ 3001-3013), is a federal law which says that if a skeleton is discovered on federal land, and that skeleton is related to an Indian tribe, then the government must give that skeleton to the Indian tribe.

The law was written to address the graverobbery and other abuses of 19th century archaeologists, who often raided Indian burial grounds. But in a recent case, the law was almost used to shut down research on a 9,000 year old skeleton discovered in Washington, which was never shown to have any relationship to any modern Indian tribe. Instead, the Clinton Administration’s Department of the Interior declared that the skeleton–called “Kennewick Man”–was an Indian skeleton simply because it was found in American soil and it predated the arrival of Columbus. Umatilla tribe religious leader Armand Minthorn explained that the tribe hoped to rebury the skeleton and thus remove it from scientific scrutiny; it did not want experiments performed on the bones because “[f]rom our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. . .. We already know our history. . .. My people have been here since time began. . .. I know how the world began, and I know how the world will end.”

A group of scientists sued, arguing that this was an irrational, politically-motivated decision. After years of litigation–which included many very shady tactics on the government’s part–a federal court agreed with the scientists that the government’s decision was arbitrary and irrational. Bonnichsen v. United States, 217 F.Supp.2d 1116 (D.Or. 2002) A few months ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. 357 F.3d 962 (9th Cir. 2004). (I filed a friend of the court brief in support of the scientists, on behalf of the Pacific Legal Foundation.) Tribes have asked for en banc rehearing of that decision, but it looks as though scientists will be allowed to research the skeleton. Unfortunately, NAGPRA has led to the destruction of several ancient skeletons. And it, and proposed state versions of the act, require universities to go through their collections, perform studies on the skeletons, and turn them over to tribes for burial and destruction. (England is considering a similar requirement). This threat to science needs to be addressed.