Thomas Discusses Battle Over Indian Artifacts

Skeletons are at the center of a bitter battle between scientists and Native American tribes over the possession of the remnants of Native American cultural history. Last Friday, Curator of Archaeology at the National Museum of Natural History David Hurst Thomas spoke at Phillips Academy about these “skull wars.” Sarah Takvorian ’06, who attended the lecture, said, “[Dr. Thomas] talked about how he had these skulls or artifacts just down the hall from him [at the National Museum of Natural History] and he thought ‘what right do I have to these?’” In his lecture, Dr. Thomas focused on the controversy resulting from the recent discovery of Kennewick man, a 9400-year-old skeleton of the Caucasoid race. The information gained from the study of Kennewick man has the potential to revolutionize current conceptions of Native American history. As major newspapers and TV networks covered the resulting ownership dispute between scientists and tribes over Kennewick man, the archaeological community began to discuss the ethical conflict between scientific discovery and respect for native cultures. Dr. Thomas said, “There was a fistfight outside my office over Kennewick man.” Referring to both its historical and ethical impact, Dr. Thomas said of the discovery of Kennewick man, “It changed anthropology and archaeology forever.” However, Dr. Thomas emphasized that such battles over archaeological artifacts were going on long before the discovery of Kennewick man. Dr. Thomas said that ever since their arrival in America, European settlers have played “finders-keepers” and “the name game” when encountering new peoples and places. Explorers like Christopher Columbus felt that they had a symbolic possession over American Indians and could therefore name tribes and locations without regard to the native cultures. Dr. Thomas stressed the role of early archaeologists in creating conflicts over Native American artifacts. Dr. Thomas wrote about these disputes over Native American remains in his book Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity, published in 2000. Dr. Thomas has also served as a board member at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology.