Poisoned Gods

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

"You're almost there," Myers says of repatriation, "and suddenly this other thing pops up. You're not sure if it's real or not, but if it's real, it's dangerous as hell. And mixed in there is a lot of anger, but anger that's tempered by the fact that [the artifact is] ours, we have it, and they can't do with it what they want anymore. One of the concerns I've heard is this is a hoax, that people are lying to us. I don't know whether the people making that argument are willing to take this stuff home to their kids, but I would rather err on the side of caution."


Resting one hand on a shoulder-high helium tank and gesturing with the other toward the crammed and cluttered chemistry analysis lab behind him, Pete Palmer lets a weary grin sneak across his boyish face. "It's kind of odd to hear Lee [Davis] sometimes talk about our artifact-testing lab," he says. "We don't have an artifact-testing lab. I think she just likes to refer to that, in the hopes that it will eventually come about. Really, we do things on a shoestring budget here. But it works."

As the resident chemist on the San Francisco State team (and the man whose office door bears a bumper sticker that says, "Born to analyze"), Palmer was responsible for devising, essentially from scratch, methods to test David Hostler's sacred Hoopa artifacts. Aside from the challenges of identifying which organic pesticides to target and how to test for the presence of heavy metals (the standard spot test, which involves swabbing one area of an object, reveals only the surface-level contamination of that exact location), Palmer had to sample the artifacts without destroying them.

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.

"This is probably the largest sample we had," says Palmer, holding up a vial containing a sliver of leather no bigger than a fingernail clipping. "It's a piece of the backside of a leather hide, not visible from the front. With each object, we'd ask David, 'Do you mind if we take a piece of the object?' And he said it was OK because they were contaminated."

Palmer balked, initially, when Davis and Niccolo Caldararo approached him for help with the artifact testing. Burdened by a full teaching load, he was already working on a side project for NASA analyzing air samples.

"I thought, 'I don't need this, I don't need to start solving someone else's problem,'" says Palmer, running a hand through his wispy brown hair. "But a lot of times, one encounters an ivory tower attitude among scientists, and I see it in myself sometimes. The big boys with toys, you know, give 'em a lab and some expensive instruments, and they say, 'Oh, yeah, we're doing cancer research.' And 50, 100 years later, millions of dollars are spent, and it's still not solved. But this particular field of analytical chemistry is more suited toward community service than any other, and after I thought more about it, I agreed."

The so-called ivory tower attitude has long dogged this particular problem: Most chemists qualified to analyze artifacts won't waste their time on dusty Indian relics when NASA's knocking on their office doors. "Any academic lab is capable of doing this," says Palmer, who admits SFSU's budget and resources don't make it the ideal institution to lead the research effort. "But you try asking most professors. Out of all the analytical chemists in the state, you might find a couple that are willing."

Then there's the issue of cost. These tests are complex and expensive, run on a pair of machines -- an atomic absorption spectrophotometer and a mass spectrometry unit -- that cost upward of $60,000 each to buy. In the past two years, Palmer has done quite a bit of free work for the few California tribes that, like the Hoopa, know enough to want their artifacts tested; and he's relied on graduate students to perform the tests and compile the data.

"If you farm this out to an analytical testing lab, it's not a cheap proposition," Palmer says. "The Native Americans, they don't have deep pockets. Everyone thinks they all run these gambling sites, but that's just a few tribes. Most tribes don't have that."

Which is why the SFSU team is trying to secure funding for a real artifact-testing lab. Palmer says he needs about $300,000 in start-up money -- enough to buy dedicated equipment and to pay graduate students for their time -- but so far, his grant requests have been turned down. And with few other institutions eager to follow San Francisco State's lead on the pesticide problem, advocates say the first step in solving it is persuading academics to study it.

"You can't get a Ph.D. out of this," says Yolanda Chavez of the Pomo tribe. "My response to that is: The person who comes up with a way of extracting arsenic out of an item doesn't have to worry about his Ph.D. -- he'll probably get a Nobel Prize."


David Hostler sits on a cedar bench overlooking a sunken, walled pit (its Indian name is spelled qxnta and means "house") that he says is hundreds of years old, if not thousands. For generations as far back as anyone can remember, the Hoopa have staged their Brush Dance ceremony here, surrounded by sweat lodges and other sacred buildings on the banks of the Trinity River. Performed twice each summer for the benefit of a sick or deformed child, the Brush Dance -- so named because a medicine man or woman traditionally waves burning fir sticks over the child -- usually attracts as many as 500 people, many of them from off the reservation, down the twisting gravel roads to the ceremonial site.

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