Poisoned Gods

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

"Their gods, their ritual objects, their means of communicating with their gods have been poisoned," says Niccolo Caldararo, one of a team of San Francisco State experts who have formed an unusual partnership with the Hoopa in an effort to unravel the nationwide problem. "So how are they going to function? Can they still function in a ritual sense?

"The tribes' reaction is, 'Jesus, we just want to use them in our religion. And you guys have poisoned us and you can't help us. This is just the same way we've been oppressed forever.'"


The use of heavy metals as preservatives dates to at least the 16th century, when various forms of arsenic and mercury salts were either dissolved in water and sprayed on objects or applied as a bath in solution. As the dangers of mercury became better known, curators began using organic pesticides -- such as thymol, DDT, and naphthalene, the active ingredient in mothballs -- or combinations of several different pesticides. Still, the reliance on toxic pesticides was pretty much ignored until the 1960s.

Lee Davis, director of S.F. State's California Studies 
program, has been raising awareness of museum 
contamination for 30 years.
Paolo Vescia
Lee Davis, director of S.F. State's California Studies program, has been raising awareness of museum contamination for 30 years.
Lee Davis, director of S.F. State's California Studies 
program, has been raising awareness of museum 
contamination for 30 years.
Paolo Vescia
Lee Davis, director of S.F. State's California Studies program, has been raising awareness of museum contamination for 30 years.

"People would open up books of botanical specimens collected in the 17th century, and they'd find arsenic crystals on the pages," Caldararo says. "A lot of mercury was used on these, too. It was understood in the field that the chronic illnesses some of the people were having in collections was because of the pesticides being applied."

By the 1980s, sporadic mentions of the problem began popping up in academic journals, and some researchers finally started to investigate the extent of the contamination. Although the findings led museums to gradually abandon hazardous pesticides in favor of modern integrated pest management procedures, the damage to the collections had already been done.

"I've always told people that if it's organic, if it's fur or fiber, and it's over 50 years old, it's been dosed pretty heavily," says Richard Hitchcock, the repatriation coordinator at Berkeley's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. "You can look at two items with fur on them -- one of them looks good and one of them looks like a piece of rawhide -- and you can certainly tell which items have been affected."

The museums' dirty little secret was largely their own until 1990, when then-President George Bush signed into law the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, for short). Pushed through by powerful tribes like Arizona's Hopi (who have halted their repatriation efforts after reclaiming one Kachina mask that was classified as toxic waste by the Arizona scientists who tested it), the law requires federally funded institutions to return human remains and objects found in Native American graves to their original tribes. This aspect of the law has received the most media attention, owing to the high-profile tussle between tribes and scientists over the 9,000-year-old skeletal remains of the Kennewick Man found in Washington state. Local tribes have claimed ownership of the bones and demanded their immediate return for burial; scientists have asserted their right to study what they call the oldest and best-preserved human skeleton ever discovered in North America. The U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., is expected to issue a decision on ownership rights any day.

The law also allows tribes to request the return of objects they deem "indispensable" -- in other words, usable religious artifacts that still occupy a key role in sacred ceremonies. Because museums had until 1995 to compile an inventory of their collections and decide which tribes were owed what, most tribes have only recently begun to explore the law's complexities and contradictions.

"It's a huge, long process," says Dr. Lee Davis, who directs the California Studies program at San Francisco State and has spent a lifetime working with the Hoopa and other West Coast tribes. "What the tribes in California want are the sacred, religious materials. In those cases, the tribes have to provide documentation as to why these items are sacred. The museums require that these objects were stolen, so you have to document that and go into the collector records. They have to hire outside people, which costs a lot of money. Very few tribes carry through with it."

Even if tribes succeed in repatriation, the lack of pesticide treatment records for individual objects makes it difficult to ascertain which artifacts have been treated, what they were treated with, and whether the level of contamination represents a significant health risk. But the experts do agree on one thing: There's no proven method to remove the pesticides.

"The problem's never going to get solved -- just forget about solving it," says Monona Rossol, a New York-based industrial hygienist who is one of the few specializing in artistic objects. "There are so many different types of problems, so many types of chemicals. Unless you have some horrendous amount of chemical analysis on each object, you don't even know what you've got there. And I don't think anyone in their right mind would fund a large-scale study, because there are too many variables."

The law requires museums to disclose to tribes that their artifacts may be contaminated, but it does not compel them to perform the expensive, often inconclusive, tests for the presence of pesticides. A state NAGPRA law, passed in October 2001 and scheduled to kick in next year, extends repatriation rights to non-federally recognized tribes, but conspicuously makes no mention of contamination.

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