Trail of Toxins 

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

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But even more important than how the artifacts were acquired was how they were handled afterward. Tribal elders want to know if the objects have been altered in any way. But Chavez has a more immediate mission: to determine if the objects have been contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury or poisons like strychnine and DDT--once used extensively to preserve objects and keep insects away.

No one knows for sure which objects are contaminated with these toxins, or to what extent. Paperwork sometimes notes the use of pesticides, but not consistently enough to be reliable. It was just such records, however, that first alerted tribes of the presence of toxic substances. So a Pomo headdress that is an intrinsic part of the tribe's heritage, and which was made for dancing but has been sitting idle for years in the Hearst Museum's basement, has more than spiritual energy radiating from it. Potentially dangerous chemicals might just coat its feathers and swirl in the air around it, making this precious object emblematic of a poisoned past.

Yolanda Chavez, who moved from Central Mexico to Northern California in the 1970s, is of Mexican Indian descent. The mother of two children with her second husband, a Pomo Indian, Chavez says it was the desire for her children to have safe access to their Pomo heritage that spurred her to get involved with the contamination issue. She first heard about the problem of pesticides when, as an undergraduate returning to school at Sonoma State University in 1992, she attended a workshop on curatorial methods, such as adjusting for light and humidity levels, and storing objects in acid-free boxes. During the presentation, the instructor urged caution when handling certain objects. "To me," says Chavez when she realized the implications, "it was a ticking time bomb."

That bomb was detonated a few years after Chavez's training, when Hoopa tribe member David Hostler showed up at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to collect his Northern California tribe's artifacts. He was surprised when museum officials handed him gloves and a mask. "They just told us, 'Be careful, don't touch with your bare hands,'" Hostler says. Documents noted the use of poisonous preservatives, so museum staff weren't taking any chances. "I didn't expect it until I got there," he says. "I wasn't aware of it at all."

Hostler was one of the first to request cultural artifacts from a museum, and he therefore also became one of the first to learn how preservation had toxified sacred objects. As curator of the tribe-owned and -run Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum, located on the Hoopa reservation, fifty miles east of Eureka, Hostler repatriates objects and oversees their safe storage. The objects Hostler seeks are irreplaceable. "It's so difficult to catch 500 hummingbirds to make one headpiece," he says. "It takes years and years to do that, trap them and take feathers off the heads. That artistry is gone. So it becomes valuable in a spiritual sense."

Hostler had worked hard to get the Peabody to agree to hand over the objects he'd requested. Initially, the museum decided that the Hoopa elder's descriptions of the use of certain desired objects, which had been missing from the tribe since the early 1900s, were not adequate for repatriation. The museum demanded a certification by an academic. Hostler turned to his old friend Lee Davis, a Hoopa scholar and anthropologist at San Francisco State University.

Davis, who worked for the Museum of the American Indian in New York City at the time, says that Peabody officials wanted lots of documentation to protect themselves against competing claims by other tribes. "When the repatriation law passed, I was very supportive of it," she says, but many museum staffers felt differently. "It was very political and very combative," Davis explains. "So many museums were really antagonistic toward NAGPRA. But it's the law, and they had to comply." Davis drew up a 600-page document of anthropological arguments for 52 of the almost 600 Hoopa artifacts in the Peabody collection, charging only a nominal fee for the exhaustive research. The museum finally agreed to hand over seventeen of the objects, and it was just around this time that Hostler learned the artifacts were potentially poisonous. Meanwhile, the Hopis were also repatriating objects from the Peabody; they too discovered their objects were possibly contaminated.

Leslie Boyer, medical director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, found a wide range of toxins on three Hopi ceremonial masks, results she published last spring in the Journal of the American Medical Association last spring. "All you can say is some NAGPRA objects are contaminated to the point of being dangerous to humans," Boyer says. "You can't tell by looking at them. Therefore, we need to be cautious in handling all untested objects, and more work needs to be done." As a result, the Hopi halted repatriating objects. About four hundred artifacts had already been dispersed throughout the community, and the Hopi wanted to test them and teach safe handling of the objects before going ahead with further repatriation.

Word of the potential health risks started to spread. When Davis heard about the Arizona test results, she was livid. "That set me off," she says. She applied for a grant from the National Park Service (NPS), the federal agency that oversees NAGPRA. She wanted to test the seventeen repatriated Hoopa artifacts and hold a conference to discuss the issue with about a hundred tribal members, scientists, and museum staff. In June 2000, the NPS doled out $75,000, one of the first grants to be awarded on pesticide contamination. But Davis immediately encountered an unexpected obstacle --the objects couldn't be tested. "Labs that test for pesticides wouldn't touch valuable artifacts," she says.

Niccolo Caldararo, a colleague on campus who is also a museum conservator, suggested Davis bring in a chemical analyst to set up a lab; Caldararo recognized the urgency and importance of testing. "They want to use these artifacts or inter them in a way that's respectful," he says. "But they don't want to poison the land or themselves." Testing began soon after.

The conference arranged by Davis was held last fall at San Francisco State. Hostler arrived full of hope; he would hear the test results for the Hoopa artifacts. Shortly after lunch, Hostler learned that the objects had come back positive for mercury; they were also covered with DDT and naphthalene, the ingredient in mothballs.

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