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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Fang says the questions for her are those also plaguing the tribes: how hazardous are the toxins on the objects? But some tribal members would prefer to ignore that issue; their primary goal is to use the repatriated objects in ceremony. This attitude worries Chavez, who wants repatriation to go forward, but not at the risk of people's health.

Chavez first encountered this outlook at a 1997 meeting on repatriation, attended by a coalition of Mendocino, Southern California, and Lake County tribes. During the meeting, some tribal members said they were worried they had shown disrespect to artifacts they had received, because the objects were making them sick. Rather than imagine the objects could be covered in unhealthy substances, the elders worried they had done something to the sacred object to bring sickness upon them. They asked the elders to pray for them. Chavez stood up, and while not discounting the tribal reasoning, posited that pesticides might be the cause of the illness, recounting the long history of toxins applied to the items.

"They looked at me and said, 'Yeah, right,'" she says, adding that there is a great amount of cynicism among tribal members. "If the whites are now saying, 'We have this contamination problem, be aware,' the tribes are responding, 'This is another excuse to keep us from our sacred items and we don't believe you.'"

By then, Chavez had her master's degree in cultural resource management and was working at the Coyote Valley Indian Reservation in Santa Clara County. And she knew that asking someone to abandon a traditional practice for health reasons could be treated with suspicion. "You have to respect people's traditional beliefs and [also see] how they adhere to beliefs over time. Indian people are very pragmatic. If something doesn't work they don't do it." Chavez says her role is not to impose her opinion. "My job is to give them as much information as I can so they fully understand what they're dealing with. So they can make informed decisions based on their beliefs. It's when you don't inform someone that you're committing an immoral act."

But apprising tribes of risks doesn't mean Chavez will change anyone's behavior. She says members of the tribes tell her, "Maybe our songs or dances can take care of it." Chavez most of all wants to ensure that tribes know what they're getting into over the course of time. She knows she can't stop the tribes from using objects in a traditional way, so instead she's determined to compile data on the problem, because even if the tribe intends to ignore the hazards, she can't. "The law isn't going to go away," she says, "and the chemicals aren't going to go away."

Industrial hygienist Monona Rossol frets that tribes are giving up their rights by too hastily accepting items back from museums. She says tribes should demand at least two tests, one screening for pesticides and one for heavy metals. "I worry about people talking about taking vitamins and praying," she says. "This is a dirt-hard scientific problem. We need to figure out the types of things we're looking for."

Rossol has drawn up a list of safety tips for both museums and tribes on handling objects. If no historical records exist, Rossol says, users should assume pesticides are present and take proper precautions, including working in a well ventilated area, wearing a lab coat, and using gloves made of nitrile, not cotton or latex. But whether these or any other safety tips will be put into practice is uncertain. Among the Pomo people, for example, Chavez has had trouble convincing tribal members that repatriated artifacts may be harmful. And now her ability to continue that campaign is in jeopardy because her funding has run out. She has reapplied for an NPS grant to continue her repatriation work, but tribal members have made it clear they don't want her spending any more time on contamination issues. They worry that too much talk about toxicity will lead to a halt of repatriation altogether. "Sooner or later politics enters into everything and people are afraid," Chavez says. "People are saying that they're going to shut down NAGPRA and it'll be my fault."

Chavez, however, hopes for more awareness, and points out that the problem isn't confined to Native American artifacts, but to all organic collections. "We have a moral and ethical obligation to look into this issue and take it seriously," she says.

Before her grant ended, Chavez informed the Pomo elders of the whereabouts of the missing feathered headdress used in the Big Head Dance. They were joyful, like a family discovering that a long-lost cousin is still alive and coming home. The tribe not only wants the item returned but, Chavez says, "They want to dance it." And the tribe doesn't want to hear about contamination; they just want Chavez to get it back. In their eyes, everyone has worked too hard these last ten years on repatriation to slow down the effort to bring objects home.

"We're not talking about anything that's a secret," she says. She and anthropologist Lee Davis, along with conservator Niccolo Caldararo, have petitioned state and federal governments to kick in funds, as costs ahead include testing, cleaning, and education, far beyond what any one museum or tribe can cover. Says Larry Myers, executive secretary of the California Native American Heritage Commission, "We're looking at this as a public health issue. This stuff is all over the darn place. The state should take some responsibility."

Meanwhile, the Hoopa dance regalia that David Hostler spent so much time seeking to reclaim sits in his museum, wrapped in double plastic bags inside a storage container. "According to our religious beliefs, these aren't to be used for anything else. The Creator left them for us to dance," says Hostler, whose enthusiasm for repatriation has been tempered. "We wanted them for ceremonies and to preserve our culture. But what good would it be now?" At least Hostler brought his artifacts home. The Pomo aren't that close. The headdress that few living Pomo Indians have seen, much less worn, sits at the Hearst, awaiting testing.

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