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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"We can't use them," Hostler now says, his voice still heavy. "The main objective of requesting regalia from the Peabody was because of our emotional feelings and religious beliefs. They don't belong in a display, stuck in a dark corner." Both Chavez and Hostler are committed to the letter of the repatriation law which reads "to bring back sacred items that will be reintroduced into ceremonial practice." The purpose of the effort in bringing these objects home is to dance them--while contact with a mask or headdress coated in toxic substances may not be harmful if handled only once or twice, dancing with the repatriated objects year after year would add up to a lifetime of contact with poisonous substances.

That the artifacts had been poisoned didn't surprise Hostler, but it didn't make the news any less devastating. And Hostler, of course, won't be the only one to endure such disappontment. Further, the federal mandate is only funded through competitive grants that many feel are totally inadequate. Without the grant from the National Park Service, the disappointment would have come with a big price tag. The Hoopa, with only 2,300 members one of the state's smaller and poorer tribes, couldn't afford the lab fees. Researchers involved in the testing estimated the cost to the Hoopa at $400 per item, and that's at a steep discount.

Museums (or tribes) are not legally required to test for pesticides--nor is the testing funded by the institutions responsible. Hostler can't imagine how he will raise money for more tests, let alone clean the objects so they can be reintroduced into ceremonies. All he can hope is that Caldararo's lab will find a way to remove the toxins without destroying the artifacts.

While experts agree that the toxins are known hazards, the risks vary depending on how the objects might be used once they've been claimed. A mask worn at dances or an object kept near food, for instance, is more worrisome than a rarely used piece stored in a closet. Risks associated with the toxins range from breathing and heart problems, to neurological damage and seizures, to long-term illnesses like skin cancer. Children are most susceptible if they come in close contact with toxins, especially if they touch a contaminated item and then, as children are wont to do, stick their fingers in their mouths.

To reduce the risks of exposure, experts recommend wearing protective gloves and breathing masks. While this may make sense in a museum, it's certainly not how tribe members intend to handle repatriated objects during ceremonies. And among some Native Americans, that fact has fueled anger and mistrust. One woman compared the contaminated objects to the days when white settlers dispensed of the "Indian problem" by handing out gifts to their tribal neighbors, covered in disease for which the Indians had no immunity. "We see this as the next blanket with smallpox on it," she says.

While museum officials did not set out to intentionally harm anyone, they may have inadvertently brought suspicion upon themselves by not disclosing a problem that is no secret in museum circles. Toxic substances have been used to treat natural-history and ethnographic collections in museums for more than two hundred years. First used in the field to protect organic materials against infestation, the compounds were used again once objects were brought into the museums, this time as a preservative. The practice goes back to Philadelphia's Charles Wilson Peale.

Peale's museum, founded in 1785, displayed a collection of animals, minerals, fossils, artifacts, and portraits. Peale has the distinction of being the first American to use arsenic as a preservative. To protect museum visitors from injury, Peale mounted numerous signs next to the stuffed specimens, warning, "Do not touch the birds, they are covered with the arsenic poison." But the public chose to touch the curiosities anyway, which prompted Peale's subsequent invention of glass display cases.

This sort of management of toxic materials continued until the 1960s. While museum staff knew that objects were preserved with poisonous compounds, it didn't seem a safety concern--for the public, anyway--since most of the objects couldn't be handled or even approached closely. And it certainly hadn't occurred to museum staff that any of the contaminated objects would ever be heading back to people's houses.

Catharine Hawks, a conservator who consults for the Smithsonian Institution, has been researching preservative treatment of museum collections for thirty years. She believes studying museum workers would inform tribes of the risks associated with close proximity to contaminated objects. "The chance that there will be significant health impact from Native American use in many instances is probably very small," she says. "But we do need to know that." Still, Hawks needs no study to identify the severe risk to the most vulnerable population. "If children are going to play with these things and nibble on them... people need to understand that's not anything you want to do any more than you want to let your children play with rat poison."

The NAGPRA law requires museums to inform tribal representatives seeking to reclaim objects or human remains of any known treatments that are a potential hazard to the objects or to anyone handling them. Although the rule may seem like a step in the right direction, it is producing unexpected--and unwanted--effects. As long as museum officials disclose, they can't be held liable. That's good news for them--and possibly bad news for tribes. "It's a huge legal loophole," Chavez says.

Most frustrating for tribes is that even if the museum offers up all the information it does have, it will be incomplete at best. The Hearst, for example, has few records prior to the 1960s of the treatments used on the museum's collection of artifacts. Over the past hundred years, the museum employed pesticides such as DDT, arsenic, Vapona (no-pest strips), and naphthalene; and mercuric chloride may also have been used. Hearst Museum conservator Madeleine Fang says determining how an object has been treated is often a matter of guesswork. "We don't have early records," she says. "We assume what was used in other museums was used in ours." Her budget allows for spot testing, which indicates the presence of a particular chemical, but not the quantity. Ironically, one clue of a preservative's presence is that an artifact is in good condition--nothing eaten away, the feathers whole, the colors bright. When an object appears to have not degraded at all, it's a good sign that a permanent--and deadly--substance has been used.


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