Trail of Toxins 

Native Americans now can reclaim their sacred objects from universities and museums. But these objects may be deadly.

In the basement of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the UC Berkeley campus, Yolanda Chavez prepares to see the past unveiled. The enormity of the museum's collection surrounds her in hundreds of rows of yellow storage lockers, with bigger items such as wooden canoes and baskets the size of beanbag chairs hanging overhead. She stands under fluorescent lights and pulls on a pair of plastic gloves. Representing the Lake County Consortium of Pomo tribes, the archaeologist has traveled from her office at the Robinson Ranchería to survey some of the Pomo band's property. She is to report back to the tribe on what she finds.

The objects upon which Chavez gazes tell the story of the Pomo tribe through its art. Baskets as much as one hundred years old are decorated with white glass beads and shells. The smaller shells are particularly valuable because they were once used as Pomo currency. Orange woodpecker feathers and brown ones from turkeys, along with red quail feathers, are stunning with their still-vibrant colors.

"These items were made with spiritual intent. You had your prayer as you were making your design," Chavez says. "These objects are infused with a deeply held spiritual belief. That's what I see when I look at them." Chavez, clearly moved at the sight of one important relic, keeps it hidden, pulling a sheet of tissue paper over it, but part of the white-feathered headdress peeks out from underneath. This headpiece is far more than a bunch of feathers--it's used in the Big Head Dance, which is performed several times a year to celebrate the renewal of the world.

Chavez says she has been told by the tribal authority that this piece has been danced and blessed, and should never have left the tribe. "It gives me a chill up my spine," she says. "You can feel the energy that's coming off of it."

Chavez has been seeking to reclaim the invaluable objects through a law approved a decade ago by then-President George Herbert Walker Bush. Called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the federal legislation was passed after consultation with tribes, scientists, and government agencies. It requires the more than one thousand museums, national parks, and other institutions receiving federal funds to return an estimated 500,000 sets of human remains and millions of artifacts that can be traced to hundreds of federally recognized tribes.

Keith Kintigh, president of the Society for American Archaeology, who worked on the passage of the NAGPRA legislation, says the law "was meant to redress past wrongs against tribes, and to level the playing field, so it's no longer tilted in the favor of scientists." The tribes asked first for human remains. Most chose to rebury the bones of their ancestors. But even if a claiming tribe chooses to keep its skeletal remains at a museum, it gets to dictate whether further studies or tests can be conducted, and whether it wants to keep the remains on public display. Few do either.

While this process has been underway--about 22,000 sets of human remains have been returned so far--tribes began to express an interest in cultural objects as well. But discussions between museums and tribes are more nuanced, as in this case a tribe must prove that an object has religious significance and has been used in ceremonies before it can be returned, leaving the museum to decide what gets released to whom. For instance, the Hearst requires that tribal elders describe how an object was used in a ceremony before the museum will agree to give it back. This is why Chavez has come to the Hearst, where Pomo objects make up a large part of the museum's California Indian collection--which, with some 259,000 items, is one of the largest in the country.

How the collection came to be so big is in part due to Alfred Kroeber, who became one of the first directors of the Hearst Museum, after its founding in 1901. Fearing that tribes would soon die out, Kroeber sent out scholars to acquire artifacts for the museum. One such field collector focused on Northern California's Pomo group. He picked up Indian baskets, documenting the makers' names, locations, and techniques. During this time, Kroeber also brought to reside at the museum a Native American man--a member of the Yahi tribe--whom he named Ishi. The so-called "last wild Indian," discovered starving in the Northern California backwoods, was treated as a sort of living cultural souvenir. Kroeber encouraged Ishi to share his toolmaking techniques with visitors. His language is captured on reels of tape stored on shelves in the museum's basement, and his skillfully made arrows are on display to this day.

Kroeber was not alone in his approach. Critics describe American anthropology as a handmaiden of colonialism. But defenders argue it led to the preservation of countless cultural objects that otherwise would have been lost forever. For decades, thousands of skeletons were gathered systematically and shipped away to be displayed and warehoused in museums and universities. Anthropologists scoured the country to document what they perceived as vanishing cultures. But instead of dying out, and against all odds, tribes survived. And now they're returning to museums to collect on a long-overdue loan. The Hearst Museum--recognizing that times, along with attitudes, have changed, hired a graduate student in archaeology, Otis O. Parrish, to act as tribal host.

"Everything here is somebody else's. It's not ours," Parrish says. He knows of what he speaks. He is also a Pomo elder, and in this way, he straddles two worlds--those of both the museum and the tribe. He can access his own family's history at the museum. Photographs of his mother making baskets are housed at the Hearst. Parrish arranged Chavez's visit, and helped the collections managers prepare relevant artifacts for her inspection. Under the federal law, museums must provide records of the repatriated objects' histories, and Chavez spent an entire day of her visit studying the field notes on the Pomo materials, searching for clues to how they were collected.

"Sometimes materials were sold --or made to be sold--during the curio trade," she says. "And then other items were stolen. Sometimes the researchers wrote it down: 'I swiped it!'"


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