.Trail of Toxins

Native Americans now can reclaim their sacred objects from universities and museums. But these objects may be deadly.

In the basement of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the UC Berkeley campus, Yolanda Chavez prepares to see the past unveiled. The enormity of the museum’s collection surrounds her in hundreds of rows of yellow storage lockers, with bigger items such as wooden canoes and baskets the size of beanbag chairs hanging overhead. She stands under fluorescent lights and pulls on a pair of plastic gloves. Representing the Lake County Consortium of Pomo tribes, the archaeologist has traveled from her office at the Robinson Rancher√≠a to survey some of the Pomo band’s property. She is to report back to the tribe on what she finds.

The objects upon which Chavez gazes tell the story of the Pomo tribe through its art. Baskets as much as one hundred years old are decorated with white glass beads and shells. The smaller shells are particularly valuable because they were once used as Pomo currency. Orange woodpecker feathers and brown ones from turkeys, along with red quail feathers, are stunning with their still-vibrant colors.

“These items were made with spiritual intent. You had your prayer as you were making your design,” Chavez says. “These objects are infused with a deeply held spiritual belief. That’s what I see when I look at them.” Chavez, clearly moved at the sight of one important relic, keeps it hidden, pulling a sheet of tissue paper over it, but part of the white-feathered headdress peeks out from underneath. This headpiece is far more than a bunch of feathers–it’s used in the Big Head Dance, which is performed several times a year to celebrate the renewal of the world.

Chavez says she has been told by the tribal authority that this piece has been danced and blessed, and should never have left the tribe. “It gives me a chill up my spine,” she says. “You can feel the energy that’s coming off of it.”

Chavez has been seeking to reclaim the invaluable objects through a law approved a decade ago by then-President George Herbert Walker Bush. Called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the federal legislation was passed after consultation with tribes, scientists, and government agencies. It requires the more than one thousand museums, national parks, and other institutions receiving federal funds to return an estimated 500,000 sets of human remains and millions of artifacts that can be traced to hundreds of federally recognized tribes.

Keith Kintigh, president of the Society for American Archaeology, who worked on the passage of the NAGPRA legislation, says the law “was meant to redress past wrongs against tribes, and to level the playing field, so it’s no longer tilted in the favor of scientists.” The tribes asked first for human remains. Most chose to rebury the bones of their ancestors. But even if a claiming tribe chooses to keep its skeletal remains at a museum, it gets to dictate whether further studies or tests can be conducted, and whether it wants to keep the remains on public display. Few do either.

While this process has been underway–about 22,000 sets of human remains have been returned so far–tribes began to express an interest in cultural objects as well. But discussions between museums and tribes are more nuanced, as in this case a tribe must prove that an object has religious significance and has been used in ceremonies before it can be returned, leaving the museum to decide what gets released to whom. For instance, the Hearst requires that tribal elders describe how an object was used in a ceremony before the museum will agree to give it back. This is why Chavez has come to the Hearst, where Pomo objects make up a large part of the museum’s California Indian collection–which, with some 259,000 items, is one of the largest in the country.

How the collection came to be so big is in part due to Alfred Kroeber, who became one of the first directors of the Hearst Museum, after its founding in 1901. Fearing that tribes would soon die out, Kroeber sent out scholars to acquire artifacts for the museum. One such field collector focused on Northern California’s Pomo group. He picked up Indian baskets, documenting the makers’ names, locations, and techniques. During this time, Kroeber also brought to reside at the museum a Native American man–a member of the Yahi tribe–whom he named Ishi. The so-called “last wild Indian,” discovered starving in the Northern California backwoods, was treated as a sort of living cultural souvenir. Kroeber encouraged Ishi to share his toolmaking techniques with visitors. His language is captured on reels of tape stored on shelves in the museum’s basement, and his skillfully made arrows are on display to this day.

Kroeber was not alone in his approach. Critics describe American anthropology as a handmaiden of colonialism. But defenders argue it led to the preservation of countless cultural objects that otherwise would have been lost forever. For decades, thousands of skeletons were gathered systematically and shipped away to be displayed and warehoused in museums and universities. Anthropologists scoured the country to document what they perceived as vanishing cultures. But instead of dying out, and against all odds, tribes survived. And now they’re returning to museums to collect on a long-overdue loan. The Hearst Museum–recognizing that times, along with attitudes, have changed, hired a graduate student in archaeology, Otis O. Parrish, to act as tribal host.

“Everything here is somebody else’s. It’s not ours,” Parrish says. He knows of what he speaks. He is also a Pomo elder, and in this way, he straddles two worlds–those of both the museum and the tribe. He can access his own family’s history at the museum. Photographs of his mother making baskets are housed at the Hearst. Parrish arranged Chavez’s visit, and helped the collections managers prepare relevant artifacts for her inspection. Under the federal law, museums must provide records of the repatriated objects’ histories, and Chavez spent an entire day of her visit studying the field notes on the Pomo materials, searching for clues to how they were collected.

“Sometimes materials were sold –or made to be sold–during the curio trade,” she says. “And then other items were stolen. Sometimes the researchers wrote it down: ‘I swiped it!'”

But even more important than how the artifacts were acquired was how they were handled afterward. Tribal elders want to know if the objects have been altered in any way. But Chavez has a more immediate mission: to determine if the objects have been contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury or poisons like strychnine and DDT–once used extensively to preserve objects and keep insects away.

No one knows for sure which objects are contaminated with these toxins, or to what extent. Paperwork sometimes notes the use of pesticides, but not consistently enough to be reliable. It was just such records, however, that first alerted tribes of the presence of toxic substances. So a Pomo headdress that is an intrinsic part of the tribe’s heritage, and which was made for dancing but has been sitting idle for years in the Hearst Museum’s basement, has more than spiritual energy radiating from it. Potentially dangerous chemicals might just coat its feathers and swirl in the air around it, making this precious object emblematic of a poisoned past.

Yolanda Chavez, who moved from Central Mexico to Northern California in the 1970s, is of Mexican Indian descent. The mother of two children with her second husband, a Pomo Indian, Chavez says it was the desire for her children to have safe access to their Pomo heritage that spurred her to get involved with the contamination issue. She first heard about the problem of pesticides when, as an undergraduate returning to school at Sonoma State University in 1992, she attended a workshop on curatorial methods, such as adjusting for light and humidity levels, and storing objects in acid-free boxes. During the presentation, the instructor urged caution when handling certain objects. “To me,” says Chavez when she realized the implications, “it was a ticking time bomb.”

That bomb was detonated a few years after Chavez’s training, when Hoopa tribe member David Hostler showed up at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to collect his Northern California tribe’s artifacts. He was surprised when museum officials handed him gloves and a mask. “They just told us, ‘Be careful, don’t touch with your bare hands,'” Hostler says. Documents noted the use of poisonous preservatives, so museum staff weren’t taking any chances. “I didn’t expect it until I got there,” he says. “I wasn’t aware of it at all.”

Hostler was one of the first to request cultural artifacts from a museum, and he therefore also became one of the first to learn how preservation had toxified sacred objects. As curator of the tribe-owned and -run Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum, located on the Hoopa reservation, fifty miles east of Eureka, Hostler repatriates objects and oversees their safe storage. The objects Hostler seeks are irreplaceable. “It’s so difficult to catch 500 hummingbirds to make one headpiece,” he says. “It takes years and years to do that, trap them and take feathers off the heads. That artistry is gone. So it becomes valuable in a spiritual sense.”

Hostler had worked hard to get the Peabody to agree to hand over the objects he’d requested. Initially, the museum decided that the Hoopa elder’s descriptions of the use of certain desired objects, which had been missing from the tribe since the early 1900s, were not adequate for repatriation. The museum demanded a certification by an academic. Hostler turned to his old friend Lee Davis, a Hoopa scholar and anthropologist at San Francisco State University.

Davis, who worked for the Museum of the American Indian in New York City at the time, says that Peabody officials wanted lots of documentation to protect themselves against competing claims by other tribes. “When the repatriation law passed, I was very supportive of it,” she says, but many museum staffers felt differently. “It was very political and very combative,” Davis explains. “So many museums were really antagonistic toward NAGPRA. But it’s the law, and they had to comply.” Davis drew up a 600-page document of anthropological arguments for 52 of the almost 600 Hoopa artifacts in the Peabody collection, charging only a nominal fee for the exhaustive research. The museum finally agreed to hand over seventeen of the objects, and it was just around this time that Hostler learned the artifacts were potentially poisonous. Meanwhile, the Hopis were also repatriating objects from the Peabody; they too discovered their objects were possibly contaminated.

Leslie Boyer, medical director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, found a wide range of toxins on three Hopi ceremonial masks, results she published last spring in the Journal of the American Medical Association last spring. “All you can say is some NAGPRA objects are contaminated to the point of being dangerous to humans,” Boyer says. “You can’t tell by looking at them. Therefore, we need to be cautious in handling all untested objects, and more work needs to be done.” As a result, the Hopi halted repatriating objects. About four hundred artifacts had already been dispersed throughout the community, and the Hopi wanted to test them and teach safe handling of the objects before going ahead with further repatriation.

Word of the potential health risks started to spread. When Davis heard about the Arizona test results, she was livid. “That set me off,” she says. She applied for a grant from the National Park Service (NPS), the federal agency that oversees NAGPRA. She wanted to test the seventeen repatriated Hoopa artifacts and hold a conference to discuss the issue with about a hundred tribal members, scientists, and museum staff. In June 2000, the NPS doled out $75,000, one of the first grants to be awarded on pesticide contamination. But Davis immediately encountered an unexpected obstacle –the objects couldn’t be tested. “Labs that test for pesticides wouldn’t touch valuable artifacts,” she says.

Niccolo Caldararo, a colleague on campus who is also a museum conservator, suggested Davis bring in a chemical analyst to set up a lab; Caldararo recognized the urgency and importance of testing. “They want to use these artifacts or inter them in a way that’s respectful,” he says. “But they don’t want to poison the land or themselves.” Testing began soon after.

The conference arranged by Davis was held last fall at San Francisco State. Hostler arrived full of hope; he would hear the test results for the Hoopa artifacts. Shortly after lunch, Hostler learned that the objects had come back positive for mercury; they were also covered with DDT and naphthalene, the ingredient in mothballs.

“We can’t use them,” Hostler now says, his voice still heavy. “The main objective of requesting regalia from the Peabody was because of our emotional feelings and religious beliefs. They don’t belong in a display, stuck in a dark corner.” Both Chavez and Hostler are committed to the letter of the repatriation law which reads “to bring back sacred items that will be reintroduced into ceremonial practice.” The purpose of the effort in bringing these objects home is to dance them–while contact with a mask or headdress coated in toxic substances may not be harmful if handled only once or twice, dancing with the repatriated objects year after year would add up to a lifetime of contact with poisonous substances.

That the artifacts had been poisoned didn’t surprise Hostler, but it didn’t make the news any less devastating. And Hostler, of course, won’t be the only one to endure such disappontment. Further, the federal mandate is only funded through competitive grants that many feel are totally inadequate. Without the grant from the National Park Service, the disappointment would have come with a big price tag. The Hoopa, with only 2,300 members one of the state’s smaller and poorer tribes, couldn’t afford the lab fees. Researchers involved in the testing estimated the cost to the Hoopa at $400 per item, and that’s at a steep discount.

Museums (or tribes) are not legally required to test for pesticides–nor is the testing funded by the institutions responsible. Hostler can’t imagine how he will raise money for more tests, let alone clean the objects so they can be reintroduced into ceremonies. All he can hope is that Caldararo’s lab will find a way to remove the toxins without destroying the artifacts.

While experts agree that the toxins are known hazards, the risks vary depending on how the objects might be used once they’ve been claimed. A mask worn at dances or an object kept near food, for instance, is more worrisome than a rarely used piece stored in a closet. Risks associated with the toxins range from breathing and heart problems, to neurological damage and seizures, to long-term illnesses like skin cancer. Children are most susceptible if they come in close contact with toxins, especially if they touch a contaminated item and then, as children are wont to do, stick their fingers in their mouths.

To reduce the risks of exposure, experts recommend wearing protective gloves and breathing masks. While this may make sense in a museum, it’s certainly not how tribe members intend to handle repatriated objects during ceremonies. And among some Native Americans, that fact has fueled anger and mistrust. One woman compared the contaminated objects to the days when white settlers dispensed of the “Indian problem” by handing out gifts to their tribal neighbors, covered in disease for which the Indians had no immunity. “We see this as the next blanket with smallpox on it,” she says.

While museum officials did not set out to intentionally harm anyone, they may have inadvertently brought suspicion upon themselves by not disclosing a problem that is no secret in museum circles. Toxic substances have been used to treat natural-history and ethnographic collections in museums for more than two hundred years. First used in the field to protect organic materials against infestation, the compounds were used again once objects were brought into the museums, this time as a preservative. The practice goes back to Philadelphia’s Charles Wilson Peale.

Peale’s museum, founded in 1785, displayed a collection of animals, minerals, fossils, artifacts, and portraits. Peale has the distinction of being the first American to use arsenic as a preservative. To protect museum visitors from injury, Peale mounted numerous signs next to the stuffed specimens, warning, “Do not touch the birds, they are covered with the arsenic poison.” But the public chose to touch the curiosities anyway, which prompted Peale’s subsequent invention of glass display cases.

This sort of management of toxic materials continued until the 1960s. While museum staff knew that objects were preserved with poisonous compounds, it didn’t seem a safety concern–for the public, anyway–since most of the objects couldn’t be handled or even approached closely. And it certainly hadn’t occurred to museum staff that any of the contaminated objects would ever be heading back to people’s houses.

Catharine Hawks, a conservator who consults for the Smithsonian Institution, has been researching preservative treatment of museum collections for thirty years. She believes studying museum workers would inform tribes of the risks associated with close proximity to contaminated objects. “The chance that there will be significant health impact from Native American use in many instances is probably very small,” she says. “But we do need to know that.” Still, Hawks needs no study to identify the severe risk to the most vulnerable population. “If children are going to play with these things and nibble on them… people need to understand that’s not anything you want to do any more than you want to let your children play with rat poison.”

The NAGPRA law requires museums to inform tribal representatives seeking to reclaim objects or human remains of any known treatments that are a potential hazard to the objects or to anyone handling them. Although the rule may seem like a step in the right direction, it is producing unexpected–and unwanted–effects. As long as museum officials disclose, they can’t be held liable. That’s good news for them–and possibly bad news for tribes. “It’s a huge legal loophole,” Chavez says.

Most frustrating for tribes is that even if the museum offers up all the information it does have, it will be incomplete at best. The Hearst, for example, has few records prior to the 1960s of the treatments used on the museum’s collection of artifacts. Over the past hundred years, the museum employed pesticides such as DDT, arsenic, Vapona (no-pest strips), and naphthalene; and mercuric chloride may also have been used. Hearst Museum conservator Madeleine Fang says determining how an object has been treated is often a matter of guesswork. “We don’t have early records,” she says. “We assume what was used in other museums was used in ours.” Her budget allows for spot testing, which indicates the presence of a particular chemical, but not the quantity. Ironically, one clue of a preservative’s presence is that an artifact is in good condition–nothing eaten away, the feathers whole, the colors bright. When an object appears to have not degraded at all, it’s a good sign that a permanent–and deadly–substance has been used.

Fang says the questions for her are those also plaguing the tribes: how hazardous are the toxins on the objects? But some tribal members would prefer to ignore that issue; their primary goal is to use the repatriated objects in ceremony. This attitude worries Chavez, who wants repatriation to go forward, but not at the risk of people’s health.

Chavez first encountered this outlook at a 1997 meeting on repatriation, attended by a coalition of Mendocino, Southern California, and Lake County tribes. During the meeting, some tribal members said they were worried they had shown disrespect to artifacts they had received, because the objects were making them sick. Rather than imagine the objects could be covered in unhealthy substances, the elders worried they had done something to the sacred object to bring sickness upon them. They asked the elders to pray for them. Chavez stood up, and while not discounting the tribal reasoning, posited that pesticides might be the cause of the illness, recounting the long history of toxins applied to the items.

“They looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, right,'” she says, adding that there is a great amount of cynicism among tribal members. “If the whites are now saying, ‘We have this contamination problem, be aware,’ the tribes are responding, ‘This is another excuse to keep us from our sacred items and we don’t believe you.'”

By then, Chavez had her master’s degree in cultural resource management and was working at the Coyote Valley Indian Reservation in Santa Clara County. And she knew that asking someone to abandon a traditional practice for health reasons could be treated with suspicion. “You have to respect people’s traditional beliefs and [also see] how they adhere to beliefs over time. Indian people are very pragmatic. If something doesn’t work they don’t do it.” Chavez says her role is not to impose her opinion. “My job is to give them as much information as I can so they fully understand what they’re dealing with. So they can make informed decisions based on their beliefs. It’s when you don’t inform someone that you’re committing an immoral act.”

But apprising tribes of risks doesn’t mean Chavez will change anyone’s behavior. She says members of the tribes tell her, “Maybe our songs or dances can take care of it.” Chavez most of all wants to ensure that tribes know what they’re getting into over the course of time. She knows she can’t stop the tribes from using objects in a traditional way, so instead she’s determined to compile data on the problem, because even if the tribe intends to ignore the hazards, she can’t. “The law isn’t going to go away,” she says, “and the chemicals aren’t going to go away.”

Industrial hygienist Monona Rossol frets that tribes are giving up their rights by too hastily accepting items back from museums. She says tribes should demand at least two tests, one screening for pesticides and one for heavy metals. “I worry about people talking about taking vitamins and praying,” she says. “This is a dirt-hard scientific problem. We need to figure out the types of things we’re looking for.”

Rossol has drawn up a list of safety tips for both museums and tribes on handling objects. If no historical records exist, Rossol says, users should assume pesticides are present and take proper precautions, including working in a well ventilated area, wearing a lab coat, and using gloves made of nitrile, not cotton or latex. But whether these or any other safety tips will be put into practice is uncertain. Among the Pomo people, for example, Chavez has had trouble convincing tribal members that repatriated artifacts may be harmful. And now her ability to continue that campaign is in jeopardy because her funding has run out. She has reapplied for an NPS grant to continue her repatriation work, but tribal members have made it clear they don’t want her spending any more time on contamination issues. They worry that too much talk about toxicity will lead to a halt of repatriation altogether. “Sooner or later politics enters into everything and people are afraid,” Chavez says. “People are saying that they’re going to shut down NAGPRA and it’ll be my fault.”

Chavez, however, hopes for more awareness, and points out that the problem isn’t confined to Native American artifacts, but to all organic collections. “We have a moral and ethical obligation to look into this issue and take it seriously,” she says.

Before her grant ended, Chavez informed the Pomo elders of the whereabouts of the missing feathered headdress used in the Big Head Dance. They were joyful, like a family discovering that a long-lost cousin is still alive and coming home. The tribe not only wants the item returned but, Chavez says, “They want to dance it.” And the tribe doesn’t want to hear about contamination; they just want Chavez to get it back. In their eyes, everyone has worked too hard these last ten years on repatriation to slow down the effort to bring objects home.

“We’re not talking about anything that’s a secret,” she says. She and anthropologist Lee Davis, along with conservator Niccolo Caldararo, have petitioned state and federal governments to kick in funds, as costs ahead include testing, cleaning, and education, far beyond what any one museum or tribe can cover. Says Larry Myers, executive secretary of the California Native American Heritage Commission, “We’re looking at this as a public health issue. This stuff is all over the darn place. The state should take some responsibility.”

Meanwhile, the Hoopa dance regalia that David Hostler spent so much time seeking to reclaim sits in his museum, wrapped in double plastic bags inside a storage container. “According to our religious beliefs, these aren’t to be used for anything else. The Creator left them for us to dance,” says Hostler, whose enthusiasm for repatriation has been tempered. “We wanted them for ceremonies and to preserve our culture. But what good would it be now?” At least Hostler brought his artifacts home. The Pomo aren’t that close. The headdress that few living Pomo Indians have seen, much less worn, sits at the Hearst, awaiting testing.


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