Poisoned Gods

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

The weekend-long event begins on a Thursday evening, when about 30 dancers in full regalia enter the dancing pit accompanied by chants and singing, and continues until about midnight. The mother sits on a stool or lies on a mattress in the pit, holding her sick child, prayed over by a medicine woman. Friday night is for resting, but on Saturday the dance lasts all night long, sometimes until 10 a.m. Sunday morning. And whenever it ends, Hostler says, the child comes out of the pit with a newfound, healthy glow.

"I always like to brag about this," Hostler says slyly, over the squawking of crows and the tumbling of the nearby Trinity. "When my wife was a medicine woman here, there was a guy who was 7 years old. His body looked like he was only 3 or 4 -- he was very fragile, anemic. He couldn't eat no dairy products, drink no milk. But he was always told that if you go into that dance, you're going to get healed, and he had so much faith." Hostler pauses to let a cough run its course, continuing when it leaves him with enough breath to wheeze. "Well, the morning it ended, he said, 'Mom, I'm going to have some cornflakes.' And he went over there and had some. I see him today, he's about 35 years old now, he weighs about 250 pounds. He's a big, muscular, burly guy. All our kids that went through this turned out positive -- that's why we keep having it."

The items Hostler repatriated from Harvard remain swathed in cellophane, wrapped within garbage bags, packed in a long, low cardboard box with masking tape sealing the sides, and relegated to the junk-laden loft above Hostler's office. Although the 17 objects -- baskets, feathers, headbands, dance skirts, necklaces, and ringtailed-cat hides -- will never be displayed and cannot be employed in tribal ceremonies, Hostler brought some of the reclaimed regalia to the riverside site during one recent dance. He didn't wear any of the costumes, of course, but he draped a few of the items across a nearby bench, where they could take part in the dance as spectators rather than participants.

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.

"When you talk about feelings," he says, "I think the poison makes the regalia feel worse than I feel, because they can't be used. Our Indian belief is that everything is spiritually alive. The regalia know what we're talking about right now."

If they do, they hear Hostler tell one story he almost doesn't get through. Dropping his deadpan humor and letting his large, sad eyes fall to the ground, Hostler recalls one day a few years ago at the University of Pennsylvania, where he traveled with Lee Davis to inspect some of the Hoopa collection. When the staff brought out the regalia and warned him of the probable contamination, Hostler lost all control, overcome for the first time by the staggering spiritual power of artifacts he thought he'd never see.

"I was looking at the most beautiful regalia," Hostler says quietly. "And I looked at it, and I literally cried, like a little baby, out loud, and I felt embarrassed when I got through." His words thick, his lips still twisted by the words "little baby," Hostler clears his throat and looks away.

"But what that was telling me was the regalia was crying, so it made me cry. I was always told that, but I never knew it until I literally cried out loud."

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