Cathay Smith: “Oral Tradition and the Kennewick Man”

Cathay Y.N. Smith has published “Oral Tradition and the Kennewick Man” (PDF) in the Yale Law Journal Forum.

An excerpt:

On the eve of the upcoming repatriation of the Kennewick Man, this Essay focuses on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ summary rejection of the oral-tradition13 evidence introduced by Native American claimants in Bonnichsen v. United States which, as we now know, was ultimately more reliable than the then-available written historical and scientific records upon which the court relied. Courts disadvantage Native American claimants when they summarily reject oral-tradition evidence and prohibit “a major source of their knowledge, transmitted orally, across time, and in a distinctive style, [from being] meaningfully . . . entered as evidence, with the same consideration as written historical evidence.”14 Furthermore, courts’ inconsistent treatment of oral tradition also results in uncertainty and deprives Native American claimants of clear guidelines on what evidence they should or should not submit to prove their claims. This Essay suggests four factors for courts to consider on a case-by-case basis in the future to evaluate the probative value of oral-tradition evidence. It then proceeds to examine the inconsistent treatment of oral tradition evidence by U.S. courts, and urges courts to employ a balanced approach and adopt the factors offered in this Essay when evaluating Native American oral tradition in legal cases involving Native Americans claimants.

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