updated 10/1/2004 9:04:24 AM ET 2004-10-01T13:04:24

Scientists hoping to study the ancient skeleton known as Kennewick Man are protesting a bill by Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell that they say could block their efforts.

A two-word amendment would change an Indian graves-protection law to allow federally recognized tribes to claim ancient remains even if they cannot prove a link to a current tribe.

Scientists say the bill, if enacted, could have the effect of overturning a federal appeals court ruling that allowed them to study the 9,300-year-old bones.

The skeleton was discovered in 1996 along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., and has been the focus of a bitter eight-year fight.

Four Northwest tribes claimed they were entitled to the bones under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.  The tribes wanted to have the bones reburied without any scientific studies.

The tribes — the Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce and Colville — dropped their court fight this summer after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that no direct link exists between them and the skeleton.

But scientists said Thursday that the bill introduced by Campbell would, in effect, nullify the appeals court ruling.

"It's a real sneaky way to amend" the Indian graves law, said Alan Schneider, an attorney for the scientists.

Campbell, a Republican and a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which approved the bill this week.  A spokesman for the panel declined to comment Thursday.

Schneider and an advocacy group known as Friends of America's Past said they were concerned the bill would go to the full Senate as a routine "housekeeping" measure and be approved with little or no debate.

But an attorney for one of the tribes called the criticism off-base.

Even if the bill is enacted — a long shot at best, given Congressional leaders' intent to adjourn in early October — it is not clear that it would apply to Kennewick Man, said Rob Roy Smith, an attorney for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation.

Campbell's bill would add the words "or was" to a definitional section of the Indian graves law.  The change is intended to clarify that in the context of ancient remains, the term "Native American" refers to a member of a tribe, a people or a culture that is or was indigenous to the United States.

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