By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
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By Erin Sherbert
The Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, the largest in California, occupies 12 square miles of northeast Humboldt County, nestled amid some of the state's most stunning terrain. Its main street is Route 96, the Bigfoot Scenic Byway, which rides the banks of the Trinity River as it swoops from forested mountain slopes to the valley floor and into the town of Hoopa. Here, the highway shares its shoulders with less appealing scenery: dilapidated houses, lawns rotting beneath rusted cars, and gaggles of the reservation's unemployed (about one-third of its 3,000-plus residents) loitering in the shade of boarded-up businesses. In the strip mall that serves as Hoopa's hub, where empty parking spaces bake on a midsummer morning, the rare sight of an out-of-town visitor prompts a long-haired teenager in a Cleveland Indians cap -- worn with no apparent trace of irony -- to ask, "Are you the guy who wants to see the museum?"
Tucked between a grocery store and the Lucky Bear Casino -- where the weekend crowd rarely numbers more than 15 -- the Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum is hard to find, but worth seeking out. Built in the mid-1970s as a storehouse for the tribe's sacred dance regalia, the one-room museum has evolved into a humble yet dignified showcase for Hoopa history. Glass cases filled with hand-woven baskets, intricate quivers, and ceremonial dresses reveal the tribe's commitment to custom, and century-spanning photographs of costumed dancers and medicine men suggest the enduring relevance of ritual and religion.
"Our dances are the same today as they were a thousand years ago," says curator David Hostler, a rotund 69-year-old who ambles through the aisles slowed by two artificial knees, an artificial hip, and deep, sporadic coughing bouts that leave him wheezing for minutes afterward. "Everything we make, whether it's basketry or regalia, comes from our heart, from our feeling of goodness, from our creator making our dances carry on forever. When the regalia don't dance, they cry. We believe that very strongly."
Sacred regalia play a crucial role in the Hoopa religion, which centers around the belief that the world will perish unless it is periodically renewed. Artifacts have their own creation stories and gender, cannot be bought or sold, and embody the spirit of the creator, which must be appeased through numerous rituals designed to ensure the perpetuation of the valley's resources. When Hostler was appointed museum director five years ago, he began learning about federal repatriation laws, which allow tribes to lobby institutions for the return of stolen sacred items. In his first stab at using the law, Hostler requested and received an inventory list from administrators at Harvard University's Peabody Museum, who invited him to fly east and inspect the museum's 500 Hoopa artifacts for himself.
"As we started going through the collections, I was forewarned to wear gloves and a breathing apparatus," says Hostler, motioning for the kid in the Indians cap to scale a ladder, reach into a gloomy loft, and bring down a taped-up box. "They said, 'We don't know what's on this stuff, but to be safe, you should wear gloves.' I didn't get no clear understanding of the problem until I got back, but that's when I first learned about the poison."
Hostler carefully opens the lid of the box, which rarely comes down from its perch, and snaps on a pair of blue latex gloves. The first object he unwraps is a small brown basket, spun out of the wild iris that blooms on the surrounding mountains, woven tightly enough to hold water. "This is a Jump Dance basket," Hostler says softly, referring to one of the tribe's holiest ceremonies. "It's very sacred to us. Just by looking at this, I would say it's probably 1,000 years old."
But aside from a few minor rips, the basket appears as if it hasn't aged a day. And therein lies the problem: As late as the 1960s, it was common practice for museums and collectors to preserve artifacts -- and to ward off bugs and rodents -- by applying a variety of toxic pesticides, including mercury, arsenic, and the now-banned DDT. In the wake of a federal repatriation law passed in the early 1990s, Native Americans have realized what was previously known only to museum workers: Virtually every organic artifact collected before the second half of the 20th century has been contaminated. Because the problem is so new, no data exist on the correlation between contaminated artifacts and health defects, especially among the little-studied Native American population. But experts advise tribes to play it safe and not use the objects as tradition dictates, meaning they shouldn't be buried, burned, worn, placed under beds or on tables, enshrined in sacred buildings, or even displayed in museums.
Federal law compels institutions to return artifacts only if they are used in religious ceremonies, leaving tribal leaders like Hostler in a conundrum: Their regalia, after being stolen by whites, contaminated in museums, and returned at great expense to the tribes, are too poisoned to use and too precious to pack away. If they bury the items, they risk contaminating the soil and poisoning their ground water; if they burn them, they risk scarring their lungs by inhaling the pollutants. In short, Hostler's initial excitement about repatriation, envisioned as a means to reopen long-lost connections with his most sacred beliefs, has been displaced by the fear that communicating with his God could wind up killing him.
"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.
"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.
"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."
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
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.
"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."