There's a federal law that says Native American bones held by museums or other institutions have to be returned to the tribe they are associated with - if the tribe can prove the bones are in fact associated with them. Nature is reporting that the University of California is planning, over the objections of researchers, on handing over 10,000 year old bones to the Kumeyaay tribe, which claims the bones came from one of their sacred burial ground.

If the bones were clearly linked to the tribe, few people would object to handing the bones over; the problem is, the Kumeyaay tribe's claims are based on Native American creation myths. In reality, a Native American who lived 10,000 years ago cannot be associated with any particular tribe, anymore than the artists of the Lascaux caves can be considered French. The bones in California could be from a population ancestral to most Native Americans, or ancestral to none of them.

Obama's Interior Department is now considering whether to ignore the scientific review committee that is normally part of the decision to hand over Native American bones. As one anthropologist in the Nature news story said, this issue is going to put the Obama administration's claim to science-based decision making to the test.