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Indians Face Dilemma of Toxic Relics

Antiquities: Preservative substances used by early curators raise health and religious questions for tribes seeking the return of their sacred items.


To the Elem Indians, the feathered headdresses and ceremonial sackcloth dresses in the possession of state parks officials are tortured souls, imprisoned for years on a Sacramento storage shelf.

So it has been painful for the small Northern California tribe to finally reclaim the sacred items, created by their ancestors decades ago, only to discover that they may have been doused with poison.

The Elem recently invoked a 12-year-old federal law to persuade the California Department of Parks and Recreation to return the items to their reservation. But they soon learned that the artifacts--like thousands of other Indian relics stored around the country--may be loaded with toxic pesticides and preservatives applied by early curators.

"We don't know what we're going to do," said an Elem tribal leader, Robert Geary, who expects the items to be returned in the next few weeks. "We want to wear them in our dances, but they could have stuff that can get under your skin and really do some damage....When our dance regalia are worn out, our tradition is to send them back into the water. If they're toxic, how are we even going to get rid of them?"

In recent years, more and more tribes have used the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to reclaim important religious objects that have found their way into public art collections--sometimes after being stolen or swindled away by frontier-era whites.

In the hope of strengthening native cultures, the act intended that the items be reintroduced into modern Indian religious rituals. Instead, some tribes are confronting unforeseen health and religious issues because of substances used by generations of collectors who never imagined that the Indians would get the items back.

In 1998, the Onondaga Nation of New York learned that 57 medicine masks returned by the National Museum of the American Indian had been contaminated with arsenic. In 1999, Arizona's Hopi people discovered that a number of repatriated kachina dolls had been contaminated with pesticides. The discovery was made after tribe members placed the dolls in structures traditionally used to store grains and vegetables.

In California's Humboldt County, the Hoopa tribe is frustrated that it has had to keep 17 pieces of mercury-laced dance regalia locked away after they were reclaimed from Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

"When this program started, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world, because I could get these things back," said David Hostler, coordinator of the Hoopa's tribal museum. "But now ... what am I going to do if I get them back?"

The use of dangerous substances such as arsenic and mercury to preserve museum items began in the mid-18th century as curators tried to better preserve their natural collections from decay--and especially from the appetites of insects. It was only a few decades ago that museums stopped using dangerous pesticides such as DDT, said Catharine Hawks, a Washington, D.C.-area conservator.

Though the methods are now considered unhealthful, Hawks said they had succeeded in preserving many links to the past. "Most of this stuff wouldn't be here if some of these substances weren't applied," she said.

So far, no one can prove that exposure to the toxic artifacts has made anyone ill, though scientists and tribal leaders said that it is difficult to draw a direct line between exposure and sickness. At the very least, however, native groups see yet another reason to be wary of the dominant culture.

"To realize that Hopi children may have been harmed by exercising their beliefs and following our guidance is a great insult upon injury," a tribe member, Micah Loma'omvaya, wrote in the journal Collection Forum last year.

Recently, the federal government acknowledged the problem, and is responding. This year, the National Park Service set aside a record amount of federal money--four grants totaling $244,000--to educate tribes about potential health hazards, said an agency spokeswoman, Paula Molloy.

Under federal law, museums do not have to pay for testing or cleaning of contaminated items.

But they do have to tell Indians if they know a piece is toxic. Often, suspicion is all they have to go on, because most museums did not keep records of the chemical preservatives they used.

Native Americans such as Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, a Hopi cultural preservation coordinator, want museums to pay for the cleanup. While her tribe is still pursuing legal claims to sacred items, the relics remain in museums until the federal government can work out a better solution, Kuwanwisiwma said.

Cleaning the items has been difficult, if not impossible, said Pete Palmer, a chemistry professor at San Francisco State University who has been testing some contaminated objects for the last few years. Part of the problem is that old animal skins and feathers are very delicate.

Testing them has proved costly and trying.

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