Dr. Robson Bonnichsen, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Oregon State University in Corvallis, was excavating a 10,000-year-old archeological site in southwestern Montana several years ago when his team discovered that the area was littered with ancient human hairs. The archeologists realized with some excitement that the hairs' DNA content could be studied for clues about the origins of the prehistoric people who once lived there.
But almost as soon as the discovery was announced in 1993 two nearby Indian tribes, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai and the Shoshone-Bannock, demanded that the research stop. Even though no human burials were found at the site, the Indians considered the research sacrilegious and wanted the hair turned over to them under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which allows tribes to claim the remains of their ancestors. The Federal Bureau of Land Management, which controlled the site, barred the archeologists from it and forbade analysis of the hair already gathered.
After a two-year battle, the regulations the bureau was following were changed to exclude naturally shed hair. But Bonnichsen said he was still waiting for permission to perform the chemical analysis. It has been quite a battle, Bonnichsen said. "Two years of work were totally disrupted," he said. "Repatriation has taken on a life of its own and is about to put us out of business as a profession."
Since the repatriation act was passed in 1990, American Indian creationism, which rejects the theory of evolution and other scientific explanations of human origins in favor of the Indians' own religious beliefs, has been steadily gaining in political momentum. Adhering to their own creation accounts as adamantly as biblical creationists adhere to the Book of Genesis, Indian tribes have stopped important archeological research on hundreds of prehistoric remains.
Among the potential losses is a rare 9,300-year-old skeleton found this summer in Kennewick, Wash., and claimed by a local tribe, which plans to bury it as soon as possible. All across the West, clues about North America's past are on the verge of being returned to the ground with little or no analysis.
"We never asked science to make a determination as to our origins," said Sebastian LeBeau, repatriation officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux, a Lakota tribe based in Eagle Butte, S.D. "We know where we came from. We are the descendants of the Buffalo people. They came from inside the earth after supernatural spirits prepared this world for humankind to live here. If non-Indians choose to believe they evolved from an ape so be it. I have yet to come across five Lakotas who believe in science and in evolution."
Most archeologists agree with the tribes that historical remains, some taken in wars with the government and shipped to museums, should be given to their relatives for reburial. But in case after case, Indian creationism is being used to forbid the study of prehistoric skeletons so old that it would be impossible to establish a direct tribal affiliation. Under the repatriation act, who gets the bones is often being determined not by scientific inquiry but by negotiation between local tribes and the federal agencies that administer the land where the remains are found.
"I can understand the loss of a collection when it relates to the recent past," said Dr. Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History, which has been compelled to turn over hundreds of prehistoric skeletons for reburial. "Certain collections should not have been acquired in the first place. But we're seeing irreplaceable museum collections that can tell us so much about the prehistoric past lost and lost forever."
In coming years, new techniques of dating and analysis will allow archeologists to conduct more refined inquiries about ancient Americans, Owsley said. But with the bones back in the earth, he added, "Future generations will not have the firsthand evidence to answer these questions."
Archeologists concede that in the past their profession gave little thought to the feelings of the people whose ancestors they so eagerly studied. "For so long we were unwilling to compromise, and we lost our shirt because of that," said Dr. Larry Zimmerman, an anthropologist at the University of Iowa.
But the tables have now turned. Using the federal repatriation act and similar state laws, American Indian creationists have been adamant in their opposition to modern science. "Some people who are not sympathetic to fundamentalist Christian beliefs are extraordinarily sympathetic to Native American beliefs," said Dr. Steve Lekson, a research associate in archeology at the University of Colorado Museum. "I'm not sure I see the difference."
Last spring, "Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact" (Scribner, 1995) by Vine Deloria Jr., a history professor at the University of Colorado and a prominent Indian advocate and legal scholar, won a Colorado Book Award for the best books of the year by local authors.
In his book, Deloria dismisses as "scientific folklore" the theory, embraced by virtually all archeologists, that America's native peoples came from Asia across the Bering Strait 10,000 or more years ago. According to many Indian creation accounts, natives have always lived in the Americas after emerging onto the surface of the earth from a subterranean world of spirits. Using some of the same arguments embraced by fundamentalist Christians, Deloria also dismisses the theory of evolution as more unsubstantiated dogma.
"Science is the dominant religion," he said in an interview. In trying to shore up their own creation accounts, he said, archeologists "are fudging considerably so that their general interpretation does not give us much confidence, and some Indian accounts may be more accurate."
Dr. Clement Meighan, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles, said archeology was being threatened by a "strong anti-intellectual" undercurrent. "Indians have a revealed wisdom that is not to be challenged, not to be questioned or investigated," he said. "Indians in the long run are the biggest losers. It's their history that's being destroyed."
But many Indians do not believe that science offers better answers than those found in their own religions. In a recent clash, the Umatilla tribe, in northeastern Oregon, has demanded the surrender, without further study, of a prehistoric skeleton discovered in July, across the Columbia River in Kennewick, Wash., on land administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. Over the protests of archeologists, who are seeking an injunction in federal court, the Corps plans to deliver the skeleton to the tribe this week for reburial.
Many archeologists doubt that the skeleton, one of the oldest and best preserved specimens ever found in North America, is closely related to the Umatillas or to any modern tribe. But under the federal repatriation act, the Umatillas can claim the skeleton because it was found on their aboriginal lands.
Similar cases in other parts of the West have given some archeologists the feeling that their field is in a state of siege. The 10,600-year-old skeleton of a woman found in a gravel quarry near the town of Buhl, in southern Idaho, was reburied in December 1991 after the Shoshone-Bannocks -- believed by many scientists to have occupied the area for less than a thousand years -- claimed the remains were those of a dead ancestor. Although tribal officials had given permission for carbon dating to determine the skeleton's age, they forbade archeologists to perform DNA tests and chemical analyses that would have given clues about the origin of the skeleton, its diet and other matters.
Tribes have occasionally given permission for more extensive scientific testing of ancient remains. The Southern Utes in Colorado allowed archeologists at Washington University in St. Louis to perform DNA and other tests on an 8,000-year-old skeleton found in 1988 in Hourglass Cave on U.S. Forest Service land high in the Rocky Mountains. It was impossible to establish that the skeleton was related to any specific modern tribe. In fact, the Utes are said by archeologists to have moved into the area where the skeleton was discovered only in the last 500 years. Still the remains were turned over to the tribe in 1993, foreclosing the possibility of future study.
Arizona Indians are negotiating with the National Forest Service over the fate of more than a thousand skeletons from the Hohokam and Salado cultures, which thrived from A.D. 600 to 1350. The Indians -- including the Hopi, the Zuni, the Tohono O'odham and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa -- disagree about who is most closely related to the skeletons, which were salvaged as part of a project to expand Roosevelt Dam, 60 miles northeast of Phoenix. But the tribes concur on one point: they want the skeletons removed as quickly as possible from storage at Arizona State University and reburied with little or no study. "It's not clear what modern culture they are affiliated with," said Dr. Keith Kintigh, an anthropology professor at Arizona State University. "The scientific importance of these skeletons is very large."
At the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, DNA studies on five mummies, one dated as being 9,400 years old, have been held up by the Bureau of Land Management because the Fallon Piute-Shoshone and the Pyramid Lake tribes have laid claim to the remains. "When remains are over 9,000 years old, there is no possible way that we can make any kind of positive assertion of affiliation," said Amy Dansie, an anthropologist at the museum.
Ms. Dansie said she and her colleagues had long assumed that they would have many years to study the mummies, which were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s in caves on federal land in northwestern Nevada. Now all that has changed, she said, because no one knows if the land bureau "will yield to Native American pressure or to pressure from archeologists and people who want to learn from the past."
Even some tribal archeologists say they doubt the ability of science to tell them new things about their origins. "There's a real feeling that we've been here forever," said Larry Benallie, an archeologist for the Navajo Nation. "The Bering Strait theory makes logical sense, but it doesn't override the traditional belief at all. That comes first." Benallie, who is part Hopi and part Navajo, said his people considered archeology "a necessary evil." Federal and tribal laws require archeological surveys before major construction projects.
While some archeologists are reacting to challenges from the tribes with anger, others are straining to put the best possible face on a difficult situation. Privately some say they are afraid that if they take too strong a stand in favor of scientific inquiry, they will be denied even more research opportunities.
And, pulled between their scientific temperaments and their appreciation for native culture, some archeologists have been driven close to a postmodern relativism in which science is just one more belief system.
"Science is one of many ways of knowing the world," said Roger Anyon, a British archeologist who has worked for the Zuni tribe. The Zunis' world view, he said, is "just as valid as the archeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about." Zimmerman of the University of Iowa said there was a need for "a different kind of science, between the boundaries of Western ways of knowing and Indian ways of knowing."
"I personally do reject science as a privileged way of seeing the world," he said. "That's not to say it isn't an important way that has brought benefit. But I understand that as a scientist I need to constantly learn."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company