In Smithsonian Magazine, we recently stumbled across a fascinating piece about an extremely significant archeological discovery; the skeletal remains known as Kennewick Man, more than 9,000 years old, found along the Columbia River in Washington State in 1996. Clicking on this article, we expected to encounter merely a geeky narrative about science, but we were astonished to find buried in the article a remarkable story of individual scientists who fought heroically against a corrupt and monied organization that was attempting to suppress scientific research. And what was this benighted organization that tried to impede science? A greedy corporation? The Catholic Church? No, it was of course that inexhaustible source of malefaction, the federal government of the United States.
Shortly after Kennewick Man was discovered, and before scientists had a chance to conduct an examination, the remains were seized by the Army Corps of Engineers. For the sake of a petty political agenda, the federal government sought, unlawfully, to turn Kennewick Man over to a local Indian tribe, which planned to bury the remains at a secret location, where they would be lost to science, perhaps forever. Federal law actually says that scientists should be afforded an opportunity for study before reburial. Nonetheless, several departments of the federal government fought a pitched, decade-long battle to stop scientific progress. The federal effort was overcome only by the brave efforts of a handful of determined scientists.
The particulars of the story are remarkable.
So [Douglas] Owsley and several of his colleagues found an attorney, Alan Schneider. Schneider contacted the corps and was also rebuffed. Owsley suggested they file a lawsuit and get an injunction. Schneider warned him: “If you’re going to sue the government, you better be in it for the long haul.”
Owsley assembled a group of eight plaintiffs, prominent physical anthropologists and archaeologists connected to leading universities and museums. But no institution wanted anything to do with the lawsuit, which promised to attract negative attention and be hugely expensive. They would have to litigate as private citizens. “These were people,” Schneider said to me later, “who had to be strong enough to stand the heat, knowing that efforts might be made to destroy their careers. And efforts were made.”
When Owsley told his wife, Susan, that he was going to sue the government of the United States, her first response was: “Are we going to lose our home?” He said he didn’t know. “I just felt,” Owsley told me in a recent interview, “this was one of those extremely rare and important discoveries that come once in a lifetime. If we lost it”—he paused. “Unthinkable.”
Working like mad, Schneider and litigating partner Paula Barran filed a lawsuit. With literally hours to go, a judge ordered the corps to hold the bones until the case was resolved.
When word got out that the eight scientists had sued the government, criticism poured in, even from colleagues. The head of the Society for American Archaeology tried to get them to drop the lawsuit. Some felt it would interfere with the relationships they had built with Native American tribes. But the biggest threat came from the Justice Department itself. Its lawyers contacted the Smithsonian Institution warning that Owsley and Stanford might be violating “criminal conflict of interest statutes which prohibit employees of the United States” from making claims against the government.
Owsley and his group were eventually forced to litigate not just against the corps, but also the Department of the Army, the Department of the Interior and a number of individual government officials. As scientists on modest salaries, they could not begin to afford the astronomical legal bills. Schneider and Barran agreed to work for free, with the faint hope that they might, someday, recover their fees. In order to do that they would have to win the case and prove the government had acted in “bad faith”—a nearly impossible hurdle. The lawsuit dragged on for years. “We never expected them to fight so hard,” Owsley says. Schneider says he once counted 93 government attorneys directly involved in the case or cc’ed on documents.
The scientists asked the corps for permission to examine the stratigraphy of the site where the skeleton had been found and to look for grave goods. Even as Congress was readying a bill to require the corps to preserve the site, the corps dumped a million pounds of rock and fill over the area for erosion control, ending any chance of research.
Ultimately, the scientists won the lawsuit…The judge ordered the corps to make the specimen available to the plaintiffs for study. The government appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which in 2004 again ruled resoundingly in favor of the scientists…
During the trial, the presiding magistrate judge, John Jelderks, had noted for the record that the corps on multiple occasions misled or deceived the court. He found that the government had indeed acted in “bad faith” and awarded attorney’s fees of $2,379,000 to Schneider and his team.
“At the bare minimum,” Schneider told me, “this lawsuit cost the taxpayers $5 million.”
Owsley and the collaborating scientists presented a plan of study to the corps, which was approved after several years. And so, almost ten years after the skeleton was found, the scientists were given 16 days to examine it. They did so in July of 2005 and February of 2006.
$5 million blown in an attempt to impede science and to keep truth hidden–your tax dollars at work.
And why did the government fight so hard against science?
[Schneider] speculated that the corps was involved in tense negotiations with the tribes over a number of thorny issues, including salmon fishing rights along the Columbia River, the tribes’ demand that the corps remove dams and the ongoing, hundred-billion-dollar cleanup of the vastly polluted Hanford nuclear site. Schneider says that a corps archaeologist told him “they weren’t going to let a bag of old bones get in the way of resolving other issues with the tribes.”
Back in the 1960s, as the government was launching rockets to the moon, it gave every appearance of serving as an engine of science and progress. But the reality is that government is inherently a conservative institution, in the sense that it seeks to preserve the prevailing political equilibrium. Scientific breakthroughs tend to cause social and political disruption; as a result, we shouldn’t be surprised to see government align itself against science, particularly in situations that have no implications for national security.
In the case of Kennewick Man, federal bureaucrats fought a protracted, multimillion dollar struggle against truth and enlightenment, all for the sake of a petty political agenda involving fishing rights. That says a lot about the willingness of bureaucrats to sacrifice enlightenment ideals on the altar of political expediency.
Yet leftists constantly assert that it’s the political right that is anti-science.
Kudos to Douglas Owsley and his colleagues for fighting triumphantly for the cause of science against the formidable resources of the federal bureaucracy. Their story seems worthy of a Hollywood movie, like Norma Rae, or Erin Brockovich–the idealistic underdog struggling against powerful and deep-pocketed forces of cynicism and corruption. But Hollywood would have to change the story to let government off the hook and recast the villains as greedy white male businessmen.