Poisoned Gods

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

"We know very little about chronic exposure," Caldararo says. "We need research, and we don't have it."

Following the conference, Caldararo secured a grant from the National Park Service to hold six educational workshops for tribes throughout the state. During the sessions, Caldararo details safety precautions, gives guidelines for handling the artifacts, and entertains questions from the usually flabbergasted tribal representatives.

Paulette Hennum, NAGPRA coordinator for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, helped Caldararo get the funding, and has spoken herself at many of the workshops. She says she hopes the sessions will serve as a model nationwide, but admits that aside from some easy advice -- apply mylar strips to contaminated headbands, for instance, to act as a barrier between the pesticides and sweaty skin -- she's unable to answer many of the toughest questions Native Americans pose.

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.

"What we say is, 'Assume the worst,'" Hennum says. "We go out and open this huge can of worms, and we give them a little band-aid: 'Now you know, now you're scared, here's the smock, and good luck.'"


Bouncing along dirt back roads on a driving tour of Hoopa's ceremonial sites, David Hostler -- wearing generic blue pants and a green shirt unclasped at the top button, where the tip of the scar from his recent quintuple bypass surgery snakes across his smooth, tan skin -- articulates his religious beliefs in a refreshingly candid, worldly style.

According to the cosmology of most Northwest California tribes, including the Hoopa, the natural balance of the world was established at the time of creation by a group of immortal, preternatural beings. That balance has wavered in human times, however, and can be restored only through renewal ceremonies attending the first acorn harvest, the first salmon feast, and other cyclical events essential to the well-being of the tribe. Presiding over the ceremonies and serving as symbolic representations of the immortals, shamanistic figures drape themselves in sacred regalia and recite esoteric chants thought to validate the current performance by recalling its spiritual origins, while dancers perform public re-enactments of spiritual death and rebirth.

The Hoopa's two most sacred rituals of world renewal, the White Deerskin Dance and the Jump Dance, are performed to protect the public health and to aid crop growth. Dancers wear elaborate regalia of deer hide or cat kilts, dentalia-shell necklaces, wolf-fur headbands, and woodpecker-scalp headdresses, and carry deerskin-draped poles mounted with stuffed deer heads. The spirit of the creator is thought to be embodied in the regalia, whose ownership rights lie only with the immortals and not with the tribal members who wear them. Pacifying the spirits of their regalia, the Hoopa believe, will guarantee them luck in hunting and fishing, safety from death and destruction, and success in everything from weaving to gambling. However, if the ceremonies are not performed and the regalia are not prayed over, the natural and spiritual worlds will fall out of balance, bringing ruin to the Earth and death to the tribe.

Every Native American tribe's belief system is different, and the purpose of regalia and ceremony varies from region to region. But in general, artifacts are viewed as irreplaceable vehicles of prayer and ritual, linking tribal members living and dead with their creator. And when an artifact is "put down" because it can no longer be used, the interment or burning ritual is often as emotional and elaborate as that for a human being. Given the spiritual strength ascribed to sacred artifacts, some tribes have stubbornly insisted that their gods are powerful enough to overcome the pesticides. Others have even suggested that whites invented the issue to keep tribes from reclaiming their artifacts. But Hostler offers no such wild allegations or vitriol.

"You go through stages of being angry," Hostler says, then pauses for several heartbeats. "If you let it dwell inside you," he finally continues, "it just builds and builds, until it becomes something you're always disturbed with. I don't like to hang onto that stuff. History is history, and you can't do nothing about it. If you knew my history, you'd know why I feel the way I do."

Hostler was born and raised in Hoopa Valley, and he dreaded even the short trip to Eureka because he always got carsick. He eventually enlisted in the Navy, along with several friends from the reservation, but his insular life in Hoopa had not prepared him for the culture shock of sharing boot camp with blacks, Southerners, Latinos, and white folks from as far away as New York. "When you go down the aisle in your living quarters, you rub bellies, and you have to get along," says Hostler, who later attended school in Southern California and opened a grocery store in Eureka before moving back to Hoopa. "So I made up my mind to get along in this world."

Not every Native American confronted by the contamination issue has made the same pledge. But Larry Myers, a member of the Pomo tribe who heads the California Native American Heritage Commission, says frustration, rather than anger, has been the prominent emotion fueling tribal response.

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