Poisoned Gods

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

"It wasn't in the bill because we didn't give it a thought," Steve Banegas, a councilman for the Barona tribe in San Diego and the bill's primary advocate, says. "It's all new to everybody, and it's an easy thing to overlook. But now that we know about it, we want to know how to handle it. We need to sit down with the institutions as equals, with trust."

That isn't likely to happen while the question of liability is still unanswered. Most tribes want institutions to pay for testing, but museums, whose own workers run the greatest risk of contamination, point out that the poisoning was unintentional, and that they don't have anywhere near the necessary funds to test every repatriated item.

"The tribes feel that the state or the institutions should be paying for it, and that's perfectly reasonable and logical," says Larry Myers, executive secretary of the California Native American Heritage Commission. "They took the damn stuff. And now that they've given it back, it's in this condition. That's not making me whole -- it's another step in the genocide." He pauses, heaving a wry-sounding sigh. "Oh well, I guess we're not ever happy."

San Francisco State professor Pete Palmer shows off 
one of the machines he used to sample Hoopa 
artifacts for pesticides.
Paolo Vescia
San Francisco State professor Pete Palmer shows off one of the machines he used to sample Hoopa artifacts for pesticides.

Jeff Fentress, San Francisco State's coordinator for the return of Indian remains and artifacts, stands in the school's archaeology department collection room, a cavernous lab filled with stacks of boxes waiting to be repatriated to California tribes. After glancing around the murky space, eerily quiet because students are gone for the summer, he says, "I tested a lot of the trays and paper bags where artifacts were. Everything had mercury in it. And in some cases, arsenic."

Fentress' tests were spurred in part by the advice of three SFSU colleagues who had become involved in the artifact contamination problem, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the repatriation of Hoopa religious regalia.

When David Hostler returned from Harvard wondering what he should do about the pesticides on his tribe's artifacts, he immediately sought the counsel of Lee Davis, director of SFSU's California Studies program and a longtime collaborator with the Hoopa on repatriation issues. Davis, who has worked in museums and complained about the contamination for decades, sensed an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the wider issue, and she asked Hostler if he would agree to testing of his repatriated artifacts; he assented. So Davis persuaded Niccolo Caldararo -- an adjunct professor at SFSU who teaches medical anthropology and runs his own conservation company -- and chemical analyst Pete Palmer to visit Hoopa and come back with samples.

"I had the good contacts, Nic had been a conservator, and Pete was a chemist," Davis says.

As Palmer and his students worked feverishly to run tests on the 200 samples they obtained at Hoopa, Davis and Caldararo lined up tribal leaders, conservators, industrial hygienists, experts from the Environmental Protection Agency, and a wide variety of academics to share what they knew about the poison problem. And in September of 2000, San Francisco State hosted one of the first conferences on the issue, with participants calling artifact contamination a national health problem that can be solved only by educating tribes, testing all repatriated materials, and launching large-scale studies on the correlation between Native American health defects and pesticides.

At the conference, Palmer presented his data on the Hoopa's 17 repatriated artifacts: Nearly every sample had noteworthy levels of mercury, and many also showed thymol, p-dichlorobenzene, naphthalene, lindane, and DDT, all of which can be carcinogens. Conference participants produced a long list of safety and disclosure recommendations for museums, tribes, and government agencies. Most of the tribes and institutions have not acted on the issue, largely because they don't have treatment records and still don't know the possible long-term health effects of prolonged exposure to pesticides. What is known, Caldararo says, generally applies only to white, middle-aged males, whereas poverty-stricken Native Americans are at considerably more risk of contracting diseases.

"We're talking about folks with weakened immune systems already," says Yolanda Chavez, a former NAGPRA coordinator for California's Pomo tribe and a longtime collaborator with the SFSU team. "So many suffer from diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Ceremonially, most of the people do their sacred dances inside of a roundhouse, which is a huge, open-beamed, circular building with a fire in the center. You have the elders sitting around, the children, and when someone is dancing [with] the item, they're shaking their head, moving around vigorously. You're shaking arsenic off your headdress, it's floating around, and it could contaminate the entire roundhouse."

Indeed, Chavez says she's heard numerous reports from tribal leaders who complained that prolonged contact with contaminated artifacts had given them headaches, dizzy spells, shortness of breath, and asthma attacks -- the first symptoms of sickness from pesticides. Hostler says he developed his hacking cough shortly after his initial visit to the Peabody Museum, where he felt faint in the dank, stagnant sublevel storage areas. Several Native American tribes, including the Hopi, already suffer from devastating infertility rates thought to result from radioactive contamination of their ground water and reservation lands; experts fear pesticide-ridden artifacts might contribute to the problem.

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