All posts by Emmett

Oral Tradition and the Case of The Ancient One

In 1996, near Kennewick, WA, two college students accidentally discovered remains that were later estimated to be over 9,000 years old. Today, Native Americans refer to the individual as The Ancient One (Fabry, 2016). According to Bonnichsen v. US, in 2004, Native Americans could not prove the necessary affiliation to modern day tribes in court for the remains to be repatriated under NAGPRA (Bonnichsen v. United States, 2004). However, The Ancient One was recently repatriated this year by an act of Congress after new DNA evidence proved otherwise (Clarridge, 2016). One reason that the court system failed Native Americans for about 20 years is that oral tradition was not seen as reliable evidence in court (Fielding, 2013). The treatment of this evidence in Bonnichsen v. US demonstrates one way in which the US legal system is biased against Native American ways of knowing.

Where students found The Ancient One

Oral tradition should be valued by both museums and courts during the repatriation process. Native Americans should be considered experts on their own cultures because of their lived experiences. Having been raised in a culture should qualify them as experts beyond what another person can learn in school, and if that culture includes oral traditions, they should be accepted. However, even if courts want to evaluate evidence only by Western standards, oral evidence should be admissible because it is reliable. Many anthropologists accept oral stories from Native Americans because it can be stronger than written evidence (Fielding, 2013, 297). Furthermore, oral tradition is supported by written records in many cases (Fielding, 2013, 304). Oral tradition therefore has both a moral and scientific basis to be persuasive in court.

Figure showing relationship between The Ancient One and modern Native Americans

Still, oral tradition was rejected as evidence in the Bonnichsen v. US case, illustrating how the legal system prioritizes Western ideals. In Bonnichsen, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined, “…Because the value of [oral] accounts is limited by concerns of authenticity, reliability, and accuracy… we do not think that the oral traditions… were adequate to show the required significant relationship of the Kennewick Man’s remains to the Tribal Claimants” (Bonnichsen v. United States, 2004). An affidavit submitted by Dr. Andrei Simic, an anthropologist at USC, similarly concluded, “As a general rule, folklore and oral tradition are not stable enough to be taken as inherently accurate witnesses of events from the remote past” (Simic Aff. 3, 2000). In court, there was bias against Native American evidence. The court elevated the testimonies based on Western models, such as inaccurate craniometric analyses (Routledge, 2008), over others. In this way, the Kennewick Man reinforced the narrative that in the US legal system, science can be prioritized over culture.

Repatriation should be a way for healing, but during legal battles, wounds remain open. Oral tradition is just one way in which judges will favor scientists who aim to study the remains. The focus on Western science continues to privilege scientists in repatriation, when its goal should be to yield justice for Native Americans.


For the full court decision, click here:

For the new DNA evidence, click here.

Works Cited

Bonnichsen v. United States, 357 F.3d 962, U.S. App. (2004).

Clarridge, C. (2016, December 10). Legislation enables transfer of Kennewick Man to tribes. Seattle Times. Retrieved from

Fabry, M. (2016, July 28).Where Kennewick Man Stands, 20 Years After Discovery. Time. Retrieved from

Fielding, T. S. (2013). Evidence issues in Indian Law Cases. American Indian Law Journal, 1(2): 285-308.

Hamilton, M. D. (2008) “Colonizing America: PaleoAmericans in the New World.” In Kennewick Man: Perspectives on the Ancient One by H. Burke, C. Smith, D. Lippert, J. Watkins, and L. Zimmerman (Eds.). Walnut Creek, California: Routledge.

Simic, A. (2000). Affidavits Address Oral Tradition and Cultural Affiliation. Friends of America’s Past. Retrieved from

The Legacy of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893

The World’s Columbian Exposition, a fair in Chicago in 1893, celebrated 400 years since Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, but it was funded by colonialist powers in order to demonstrate human progress (Rinehart, 2012, 404). The Exposition endorsed racialized eugenics, contrasting a modern White City with the traditional Midway Plaisance, which was filled with ethnic villages (Fine-Dare, 2002, p. 22). Even though many people today recognize that this Exposition showed a backwards view of Indians, it is relevant because Americans have still not reconciled their notions of the Vanishing Indian with reality. Just as in 1893, the public continues to enjoy learning about Native Americans as an exotic, uncivilized, and long-gone race through sports.

During the World’s Columbian Exposition, Midway Plaisance stereotyped Native Americans as savages in order to amuse white tourists. Kathleen S. Fine-Dare (2002) provides an extremely upsetting advertisement of the event. It depicts two Native Americans with the caption, “These two… may never have scalped, nor built a fire around a prisoner, or flayed an enemy alive, but that does not signify that they would not do it if they had the chance” (p. 28). These types of advertisements of the event played into the stereotype that all Native Americans were aggressive savages (Rinehart, 2012, p. 419). It allowed the Exposition to neatly compare White City, the “pinnacle of civilization,” with Indians in the Midway Plaisance, who were portrayed as static, distorting the concept of evolution (Fine-Dare, 2002, 30). In reality, it displayed how little views had progressed about Native Americans since explorers met them in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

Ticket from the World’s Columbian Exposition. See

The American public continues to exotify Native Americans culture for public consumption. One of the most prominent examples is the Washington Redsk*ns. The team profits off of the derogatory caricatures of Native Americans. This legacy of colonialism is shameful. Some compare the pictures to using black-face or images of the Jews during the Holocaust (Woodrow Cox, 2016). According to the National Congress of American Indian, the name of the Washington Redsk*ns, specifically, ignores a long history in which Native Americans were killed and sold as commodities for their skins (National Congress of American Indians, 2013, p. 10). The stereotypes and negative views that were seen in the World’s Columbian Exposition have never died. Americans are still attached to stereotypes of Native Americans as uncivilized and barbaric.

Redsk*ns shirt available for purchase from the NFL. See

Fine-Dare (2002) reminds us that this history is relevant because there is a “cultural legacy of mourning” (p. 51). In many ways, the same racial motifs are disseminated by the media in 2017. These reinforce systems of oppression against Indians, who still exist in the US today. Although the US no longer holds the World’s Columbian Exposition, it is essential that citizens learn about it. Current conversations of Indians continue to only entertain, not educate, the public about different cultures.

For more on racism at the World’s Columbian Exposition, see The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, by Ida B. Wells:


Works Cited

Fine-Dare, K. S. (2002). Grave Injustice: The American Indian Repatriation Movement and NAGPRA. University of Nebraska Press.

National Congress of American Indians (2013). Ending the Legacy of Racism in Sports & the Era of Harmful “Indian” Sports Mascots. Retrieved from

Rinehart, M. (2012). To Hell With the Wigs!: Native American Representation and Resistance at the World’s Columbian Exposition. American Indian Quarterly, 36, 4.

Woodrow Cox, J. (2016, August 9). Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo: Why the Most Offensive Image in Sports Has Yet to Die. Washington Post. Retrieved from