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FW: Nothing Sacred...NAGPRA..What went wrong?

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  • Popplestone, Ann
    ... From: Don [mailto:dbain@TELUS.NET] Sent: Friday, February 09, 2001 1:48 PM To: ANTHRO-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU Subject: Nothing Sacred...NAGPRA..What
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 9, 2001
      FW: Nothing Sacred...NAGPRA..What went wrong?

      -----Original Message-----
      From: Don [mailto:dbain@...]
      Sent: Friday, February 09, 2001 1:48 PM
      To: ANTHRO-L@...
      Subject: Nothing Sacred...NAGPRA..What went wrong?

      From NatNews@yahoogroups.com

      story lead from Victor Rocha...thanks!

      Nothing Sacred
      A decade ago, Native Americans won the right to recover religious
      artifacts from museums. Today, those artifacts are toxic, and
      untouchable. Daniel Kraker looks at what went wrong.


      A DECADE AGO, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
      (NAGPRA) cleared the way for Indian tribes to recover cultural artifacts
      and human remains from museum collections. After a lengthy Native
      American lobbying effort, spearheaded in large part by the Hopi, George
      Bush finally signed the bill in 1990. Under the terms of the
      legislation, federally funded institutions are required to provide
      summaries of their collections and release items of cultural and
      religious significance to tribes that request their return. NAGPRA
      seemed to be a monumental victory for Native Americans. However, its
      unforeseen consequences have created a serious health threat: Hundreds
      of artifacts have been contaminated with arsenic, mercury, and other
      toxins applied by museums themselves.

      Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi tribe's Cultural Preservation
      Office, first learned about the poisoning in 1995. He was at Harvard's
      Peabody Museum arranging for the repatriation of three Hopi artifacts
      known as Katsina Friends. During discussions with Peabody officials, he
      discovered the unfathomable: The Friends had been poisoned to prevent
      insect decay. To the Hopi, these objects are much more than mere
      assemblages of leather and feathers, yarn and paint. "In Hopi," explains
      Kuwanwisiwma, "these objects have life and spirit. [They] are just like
      your son, your mother. It's part of our living human community that has
      been contaminated with poison."

      By the time Kuwanwisiwma learned about the poisons, the Hopi had already
      repatriated some sixty objects and returned them to their owners on the
      reservation, who performed reconsecration ceremonies to welcome the
      sacred items back to their homeland. Many of the items were restored
      with new feathers and paint. Most ominously, many artifacts had already
      been worn and used in ceremonies, stored in clan houses, and even
      brought into underground, poorly ventilated religious chambers called

      MUSEUMS APPLIED pesticides to organic materials from the mid-nineteenth
      century until the 1970s. Mercury and arsenic were the most common
      pesticides employed, but other chemicals that are now banned for use as
      pesticides were also applied, including carbon tetrachloride and
      ethylene dichloride, which are both classified by the EPA as probable
      carcinogens. The thinking was that contaminated artifacts would be
      forever safely ensconced in glass. But that all changed when NAGPRA
      became a federal law a decade ago. Tribes like the Hopi, the Hoopa of
      Southern California, and the Seneca Nation of New York are all bringing
      artifacts back to use them in ceremonies. This has taken museums by
      surprise and presented a whole host of public-health concerns. And it
      has underscored a fundamental disparity between museums that have
      treated these artifacts as relics needing to be preserved at all cost
      and tribes, especially the Hopi, who see these objects as living, sacred

      The fact that some artifacts are well over two hundred years old and
      still exist in museum collections is testament to how well these
      contaminants have worked. But the residues that these poisons left
      behind pose serious, and in some cases severe, health risks to Indian
      tribes. A few years ago, the Hopi tried to repatriate artifacts from a
      collection in Santa Fe's School of American Research. "One item," says
      Kuwanwisiwma, "was found to have three hundred to four hundred times the
      accepted level of arsenic. It is so hazardous that the Arizona Poison
      Control Center simply told the Hopi tribe, 'Please never ask for it
      back.'" Lucas Namoki, a Hopi tribal member who works for the Indian
      Health Service, doesn't understand why collectors didn't tell the Hopi
      people that they had applied chemicals to their artifacts. He considers
      this just another example of the lack of communication between the Hopi
      and non-Indians.

      Arsenic and mercury, both used well before their health and
      environmental risks were fully understood, are of most concern to
      tribes. They "affect a wide variety of target organs," explains Kathy
      Makos, an industrial hygienist at the Smithsonian Institution. "The
      predominant symptoms of acute arsenic poisoning include severe
      gastrointestinal and central nervous system problems, while long-term
      overexposure could lead to lung or skin cancer. Exposure to inorganic
      mercury primarily targets the nervous system and kidneys." Making
      matters worse, it could be a number of years after someone is exposed to
      a pesticide residue before the symptoms of chronic poisonings are seen.

      Makos is quick to point out that while a serious concern, with proper
      tribal education and close communication between museums and tribes, the
      risk posed by pesticide contamination should be easily controlled. "It's
      not the fact so much that you have a serious hazardous pesticide on an
      object," she says, "as much as how is that object going to be handled,
      where is the contact, what is it going to mean to that person's short
      term or long term health? That's a classic public health evaluation." In
      other words, if tribes know what pesticides are present on an object and
      in what quantity, they can manage the risks involved with handling that
      object. But for the most part they haven't been able to do this, because
      museums often don't have accurate records of what has been applied to

      It is possible to reconstruct pesticide histories through anecdotal
      information and old records, but according to Micah Lomaomvaya of the
      EPA-funded Hopi Pesticide Program, it's like putting together a jigsaw
      puzzle. Most museums don't have the resources to go back painstakingly
      through old archives. One of the few museums that has, the Arizona State
      Museum in Tucson, was only able to do so with the help of a grant from
      the National Park Service, which administers NAGPRA. Nancy Odegaard, a
      conservator at the museum, feels that institutions are "understandably
      overwhelmed" by the task. Luckily for them, NAGPRA does not require
      museums to reconstruct pesticide histories of their collections.
      Pesticides were not even mentioned until the final regulations of the
      statute, which have only been effective since 1996.

      The latest revisions of NAGPRA also only require museums to share with
      tribes what they know, and because of the dearth of historical records
      and the age of many of these artifacts, most collections managers know
      very little. While many museums have gone beyond the regulations and
      warned tribes about what might be present on objects, others, quite
      legally, have told tribes only what they know certainly: nothing.

      For this reason, even with the 1996 regulations, many tribes remain
      unaware of the potential poisoning of their artifacts. With little
      success, Kuwanwisiwma has appealed to the Park Service to bring national
      attention to the issue so that all tribes can make informed decisions
      about how to proceed with repatriation. The Hopi are also actively
      sharing what they know with other tribes, many of which still have no
      idea that what they have repatriated may be poisoned. Even the Navajo,
      whose reservation completely surrounds Hopi land, have only just learned
      about the issue.

      In the absence of thorough documentation, tribes are eager to test
      artifacts before repatriating them. But tests are expensive and without
      knowing precisely what to look for, broad spectrum tests (costing a few
      thousand dollars) must be used. While arsenic and mercury are the most
      common pesticides found on Indian artifacts, according to Nancy Odegaard
      there are at least ninety-one chemicals that have been used over the
      past two centuries. Testing also often requires the removal of part of
      an object, which might not be acceptable to some tribes.

      Assuming a tribe is able to scrape together funds to test an artifact,
      and it does come back positive, Micah Lomaomvaya says that it's still
      unclear what the Hopi should then do. "It's all up in the air right
      now," he says. "We need to come together, hopefully, to develop a way to
      create a solution -- whether or not it's just creating a facility to
      house these items into perpetuity, or if there's a possible way to
      decontaminate these items, how much is it going to cost, and who's going
      to pay for it." The "we" he's referring to includes Indian tribes,
      museums, and the federal government. Only recently have they begun to
      work together. In the past year, museums have held workshops in Arizona
      and Southern California to educate tribes about the hazards that
      pesticides pose. A national symposium that will bring together all
      parties involved in the issue -- conservators, Native Americans, health
      professionals, and federal officials -- to map out strategies is
      scheduled for March.

      As with many politically charged issues, the devil is in the dollars.
      Most Indian tribes don't have anywhere near the funds needed to
      thoroughly document, test, and possibly decontaminate the many thousands
      of artifacts housed in museums around the world. Kuwanwisiwma believes
      that the museum community is liable to provide this funding. This
      position, he says, has "caused mixed reaction. Some museums are I'm sure
      honest by saying that they don't have the financial resources and were
      typically bewildered in terms of the technical aspects of laboratory
      testing, because this is a new frontier."

      Museums also correctly argue that they applied pesticides in good faith
      to preserve objects, and had no way of knowing that they would someday
      return to cultural use on reservations. Makos believes that neither
      tribes nor museums can afford to act alone on this issue. "It's not a
      question of tribe versus museum resources," she says, stressing that
      this is her opinion and not that of the Smithsonian, "but whether tribes
      and museums are willing to organize together to convince Congress and
      the NAGPRA office to fund this mandate."

      In the meantime, the Hopi have placed a temporary moratorium on the
      physical repatriation of artifacts to the reservation. Lomaomvaya is
      collecting the artifacts that have already been returned to the tribe
      and bringing them to a temporary storage facility at the Museum of
      Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.

      The irony isn't lost on the Hopi. A century ago, museum collectors left
      the Southwest with wagonloads of artifacts, ostensibly to "preserve"
      them. Now, ten years after the passage of NAGPRA -- an official promise
      to return these artifacts -- the Hopi are once again seeing their sacred
      objects leave the reservation. And once again, they're going to a

      Daniel Kraker is a writer living on the Hopi Indian Reservation. He also
      reports on Native American issues for KNAU Public Radio in Flagstaff.

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