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.

September 1 2002

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.

Experts said it is difficult to even know what to test for, because early curators cooked up a bizarre collection of homemade preservatives. Researchers know some curators used substances such as mercury, naphthalene and DDT, but there are myriad possibilities.

The fate of the Elem costumes is a good illustration of the problem. After a San Francisco State undergraduate tested the objects for free, researchers last month announced that the items did not contain mercury or arsenic.

But the university's chemistry department, turned down in its bid for federal funding, did not have the time or money to test for many other common pesticides, Palmer said.

That leaves the Elem with some difficult decisions. Further testing could cost as much as $600 per item, and about 30 relics are being returned.

Tribal leader Geary said his people were considering wearing the costumes, but with cloth buffers that would prevent skin contact.

Despite meager government resources, however, Palmer and others said the education campaign alone will be welcome in California. For many tribes, gambling proceeds have helped solve basic subsistence problems, allowing them to pursue cultural goals with an unprecedented vigor.

In Southern California alone, at least five museums are being planned by Native American tribes, said Paul Apodaca, a sociology professor at Chapman University in Orange County.

New Native American political muscle in Sacramento led last year to the passage of a California repatriation law, which could dramatically increase the number of repatriation requests statewide.

Nationwide, cultural resource experts hope that concerns about Native Americans' health will alert museums to the hazards their workers may be facing in their own collections.

Palmer and his colleagues have suggested that all museums with extensive organic collections--from mummies to stuffed wildlife--test for contaminants. They also believe museum employees should be subjected to regular medical examinations.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is conducting a small study of museum workers' exposure to arsenic and mercury.

A government industrial hygienist, Edward Burroughs, said the study is testing for the substances at a handful of museums.

Though the study is finding some questionable practices, he said, workers generally appear to be protected from harmful exposure.

But Palmer said many museums do not have the money to test for the contaminants.

At Los Angeles' cash-strapped Southwest Museum--home to 225,000 Native American objects--chief curator Steve Grafe said the staff operates on the "naive belief" that exposure levels are not harmful.

Kuwanwisiwma of the Hopi tribe recalled one kachina doll that had been found to be so contaminated that the Arizona Poison Control Center pleaded with the tribe to keep it off the reservation.

"Well, part of the problem is, we don't know how to dispose of them," Kuwanwisiwma said. "To throw it away would be like giving a death penalty to a fellow brother."

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