Poisoned Gods

As museums return stolen religious artifacts, Native Americans are learning that their most sacred objects may kill them

The Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, the largest in California, occupies 12 square miles of northeast Humboldt County, nestled amid some of the state's most stunning terrain. Its main street is Route 96, the Bigfoot Scenic Byway, which rides the banks of the Trinity River as it swoops from forested mountain slopes to the valley floor and into the town of Hoopa. Here, the highway shares its shoulders with less appealing scenery: dilapidated houses, lawns rotting beneath rusted cars, and gaggles of the reservation's unemployed (about one-third of its 3,000-plus residents) loitering in the shade of boarded-up businesses. In the strip mall that serves as Hoopa's hub, where empty parking spaces bake on a midsummer morning, the rare sight of an out-of-town visitor prompts a long-haired teenager in a Cleveland Indians cap -- worn with no apparent trace of irony -- to ask, "Are you the guy who wants to see the museum?"

Tucked between a grocery store and the Lucky Bear Casino -- where the weekend crowd rarely numbers more than 15 -- the Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum is hard to find, but worth seeking out. Built in the mid-1970s as a storehouse for the tribe's sacred dance regalia, the one-room museum has evolved into a humble yet dignified showcase for Hoopa history. Glass cases filled with hand-woven baskets, intricate quivers, and ceremonial dresses reveal the tribe's commitment to custom, and century-spanning photographs of costumed dancers and medicine men suggest the enduring relevance of ritual and religion.

"Our dances are the same today as they were a thousand years ago," says curator David Hostler, a rotund 69-year-old who ambles through the aisles slowed by two artificial knees, an artificial hip, and deep, sporadic coughing bouts that leave him wheezing for minutes afterward. "Everything we make, whether it's basketry or regalia, comes from our heart, from our feeling of goodness, from our creator making our dances carry on forever. When the regalia don't dance, they cry. We believe that very strongly."

David Hostler, curator of the Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum, first learned of the contamination problem when he repatriated 17 sacred items from Harvard University's Peabody Museum.
Warren Tamerius/ Hoopa People Newspaper
David Hostler, curator of the Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum, first learned of the contamination problem when he repatriated 17 sacred items from Harvard University's Peabody Museum.
S.F. State anthropology professor Niccolo Caldararo 
conducts workshops with tribes around California on 
artifact contamination.
Paolo Vescia
S.F. State anthropology professor Niccolo Caldararo conducts workshops with tribes around California on artifact contamination.

Sacred regalia play a crucial role in the Hoopa religion, which centers around the belief that the world will perish unless it is periodically renewed. Artifacts have their own creation stories and gender, cannot be bought or sold, and embody the spirit of the creator, which must be appeased through numerous rituals designed to ensure the perpetuation of the valley's resources. When Hostler was appointed museum director five years ago, he began learning about federal repatriation laws, which allow tribes to lobby institutions for the return of stolen sacred items. In his first stab at using the law, Hostler requested and received an inventory list from administrators at Harvard University's Peabody Museum, who invited him to fly east and inspect the museum's 500 Hoopa artifacts for himself.

"As we started going through the collections, I was forewarned to wear gloves and a breathing apparatus," says Hostler, motioning for the kid in the Indians cap to scale a ladder, reach into a gloomy loft, and bring down a taped-up box. "They said, 'We don't know what's on this stuff, but to be safe, you should wear gloves.' I didn't get no clear understanding of the problem until I got back, but that's when I first learned about the poison."

Hostler carefully opens the lid of the box, which rarely comes down from its perch, and snaps on a pair of blue latex gloves. The first object he unwraps is a small brown basket, spun out of the wild iris that blooms on the surrounding mountains, woven tightly enough to hold water. "This is a Jump Dance basket," Hostler says softly, referring to one of the tribe's holiest ceremonies. "It's very sacred to us. Just by looking at this, I would say it's probably 1,000 years old."

But aside from a few minor rips, the basket appears as if it hasn't aged a day. And therein lies the problem: As late as the 1960s, it was common practice for museums and collectors to preserve artifacts -- and to ward off bugs and rodents -- by applying a variety of toxic pesticides, including mercury, arsenic, and the now-banned DDT. In the wake of a federal repatriation law passed in the early 1990s, Native Americans have realized what was previously known only to museum workers: Virtually every organic artifact collected before the second half of the 20th century has been contaminated. Because the problem is so new, no data exist on the correlation between contaminated artifacts and health defects, especially among the little-studied Native American population. But experts advise tribes to play it safe and not use the objects as tradition dictates, meaning they shouldn't be buried, burned, worn, placed under beds or on tables, enshrined in sacred buildings, or even displayed in museums.

Federal law compels institutions to return artifacts only if they are used in religious ceremonies, leaving tribal leaders like Hostler in a conundrum: Their regalia, after being stolen by whites, contaminated in museums, and returned at great expense to the tribes, are too poisoned to use and too precious to pack away. If they bury the items, they risk contaminating the soil and poisoning their ground water; if they burn them, they risk scarring their lungs by inhaling the pollutants. In short, Hostler's initial excitement about repatriation, envisioned as a means to reopen long-lost connections with his most sacred beliefs, has been displaced by the fear that communicating with his God could wind up killing him.

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