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Poisoned Legacy

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 387 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... POISONED LEGACY The Mojo Wire by Claudine Zap Oct.
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 28, 2000
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      The Mojo Wire
      by Claudine Zap
      Oct. 24, 2000


      Museums across the US, which collected thousands of sacred Native American
      artifacts in recent centuries, are required to return the relics to their
      rightful tribal owners. There's just one problem -- the artifacts are now
      toxic because of the chemicals used to preserve them.


      When David Hostler showed up at the Harvard Peabody Museum in Cambridge,
      Mass. to reclaim artifacts taken from his ancestors in California's Hoopa
      Valley Indian tribe, he wasn't expecting to also be handed gloves and a gas
      mask. The reason? The items were covered in poison.

      To make matters worse, the museum officials didn't know exactly what kind or
      how many toxins were on the headdresses, feathers, and other objects. "They
      just told us, 'Be careful, don't touch it with your bare hands,'" said

      Hostler was attempting to reclaim some 17 sacred items under the Native
      American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law passed in
      1990. The tribe wanted the items back to be used in spiritual ceremonies, as
      they had been in the past until they were sold to museum collectors at the
      turn of the century. The Peabody, and hundreds of other institutions that
      receive federal funding, is required under NAGPRA to return tribes' historic
      sacred items, along with human remains and other religiously significant
      objects. But now Indian tribes are discovering that hundreds, perhaps
      thousands, of those objects are contaminated with hazardous pesticides.

      Pesticides have been seeping into Indian cultural items for the last 200
      years, according to Jessica Johnson, former conservator for the National
      Park Service, which administers the NAGPRA repatriation process. Researchers
      in the field treated artifacts with poisons including arsenic, mercury,
      strychnine, and DDT to preserve them against insects and rodents, she
      explains. Once the objects were in a museum, conservators often used more
      pesticides for the same reason -- preservation.

      While past use of poisons as preservatives was never a secret in museum
      circles, it didn't become a public issue since most contaminated items were
      stored safely away. "People working on this issue hadn't thought about the
      issue of objects going back into people's houses," Johnson said.

      No one knows for sure even which objects have been treated with toxins, nor
      how much was used. Under the federal law, museums must provide records of
      the repatriated objects' histories; these sometimes note the use of
      pesticides, but not consistently enough to be reliable. It was just such
      records, however, that first alerted claiming tribes of the use of
      pesticides on objects they wanted back.

      Pesticide testing costs money, and right now, it's not a legal requirement
      of repatriation. Tribes like the Hoopa Valley and Arizona's Hopi have been
      applying for NAGPRA testing grants, and so far the National Park Service has
      doled out a few. But word about the health risks involved in repatriation is
      only just starting to get out.

      Leslie Boyer, medical director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information
      Center, who collaborated on the arsenic testing of the Hopi artifacts, found
      a wide range of toxicity. "All you can say is some NAGPRA objects are
      contaminated to the point of being dangerous to humans," said Boyer. "You
      can't tell by looking at them. Therefore, we need to have caution in
      handling of all untested objects, and more work needs to be done."

      Alarmed by Boyer's results, the Hopi tribe has halted physically reclaiming
      objects until testing can be done on the 400 artifacts they have claimed.

      While experts agree that the toxins are known hazards, the risks vary
      depending on how the objects might be used by tribes once they've been
      reclaimed: A mask worn at dances or an object kept near food, for instance,
      is more worrisome than a rarely-used object stored in a closet. Until
      testing under specific tribal conditions can be done, experts are urging
      caution around all reclaimed artifacts.

      Known risks associated with the toxins range from breathing and heart
      problems to the longer-term risks such as skin cancer. Children are
      especially vulnerable because, as parents know, they tend to touch things
      and then put their hands to their mouths.

      Heeding the rising concern, Johnson is helping to organize a symposium on
      the issue next spring. "We need desperately to have more information in
      exposure risk on pesticides," says Niccolo Caldararo of San Francisco State
      University, who helped form an artifact testing lab in June. The most
      immediate issue, he says, is to get accurate information to the tribes.
      "They want to use these artifacts or inter them in a way that's respectful.
      But they don't want to poison the land or themselves."

      Money is at the top of Hostler's concerns. The Hoopa Valley tribe, located
      50 miles east of Eureka, is one of California's smaller and poorer tribes,
      with only about 2,300 members. The artifacts analysis lab at San Francisco
      State University tested their reclaimed items with NAGPRA funding. They all
      tested positive for arsenic, and were "covered in pesticides," as Caldararo
      put it. Researchers involved in the testing estimate the steeply discounted
      cost to the Hoopa at $400 per item. Hostler says he can't imagine how he
      could raise funds for more tests, let alone for detoxifying the objects.

      Hostler is looking to Caldararo's lab in hopes of removing the toxins
      without destroying the artifacts, so the regalia may again be a part of his
      tribe's ceremonies. Meanwhile, Hostler keeps the artifacts and regalia
      double-wrapped in plastic bags stored in boxes. While the tribe had hoped to
      resume using them in sacred ceremonies once they were retrieved, that
      possibility now seems remote.

      Hostler's enthusiasm for repatriating other objects has, understandably,
      cooled considerably. "We wanted them for ceremonies and to preserve our
      culture," Hostler said. "But what good would it be now? "


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