The Dead Tree (Book) Log

August 31, 2007 at 3:18 pm (books)

As pun-tastic as the title of this is, it’s subject to change. But I’m thinking that The Dead Tree (Book) Log, or whatever, may become a regular, monthly feature on this blog in which Daisy and/or I summarize/review/chat a little about what we’ve been reading. Because really, books are basically my favorite things to discuss. So here’s the first of a possible series, on Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity.

Conflict between native peoples in North America and non-native scientists were centuries old before the skeleton called Kennewick Man was found near Kennewick, Washington, in 1996. By starting from “the beginning” and rehashing the history of relations between native peoples and archaeologists, David Hurst Thomas helps to explain the controversy surrounding the discovery that the Kennewick Man was much older than any known natives’ remains and looked like the actor Patrick Stewart. Which is to say he had “caucasoid” European features, and therefore challenged all previous theories about the first inhabitants of the northern part of the continent, who they were, and how they came to be there.

The book begins with a discussion about the power to name; in this case the power of post-Columbus European anthropologists and archaeologists to name the things they “discovered” in the “new world” while ignoring the fact that everything had already been named by others, and to therefore dictate the way history is recorded and passed on. Then we see how the public image of The Indian was manufactured to revolve around dichotomous categories that were used to strengthen the institute of white supremacy- like the Noble or Savage, spiritually superior or heathen. We come to learn, or re-learn, that science/scientists are by no means inherently objective or removed from a broader cultural context in which racism plays a huge role in the establishment of “facts.” Scientists went about studying natives by disregarding their input, robbing their graves, and decimating their cultures and living systems.

The Kennewick skeleton came to represent this struggle as salt on an open wound. The case raises questions about property, about claim to culture, and about the role scientists, particularly non-native scientists, have an obligation to play in gathering information about a people whose identity they don’t share. The conclusion is obvious, simple, and satisfying. Scientists must respect the people they study so that people may respect science.

Also worth noting:

Another Turn of the Crank, by Wendell Berry- I almost didn’t want to mention this one because of how annoying the last two essays were in their strong implications that a belief in God or religion, as well as anti-choice leanings, are somehow necessary for envisioning a sustainable, community-centered economy and future. All the prior essays are very compelling and eloquent, though, so if you pick it up, just skip the last two essays and spare yourself some serious eye-rolling.

Fun Home, by Allison Bechdel.

Read anything interesting lately? Let us know in comments.



  1. Peter Jones said,

    Skull Wars is good, but more about the history of the Kennewick Case than the actual evidence. If you want to learn more about the prehistory of the area, my book Respect for the Ancestors covers the archaeology, biology, linguistics, and other information on the Kennewick Man. It may be of interest since I conclude that the skeleton CAN be shown to be affiliated with the American Indian tribes of the area.

  2. Daisy said,

    Hey, thanks Peter! What an interesting topic to study.

  3. Dead Tree Book Log: The Seven Ages by Louise Gluck « Our Descent Into Madness said,

    […] September 28th, 2007 at 5:29 pm (books) (First entry here.) […]

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