Museum first in country to offer safety check for tribal artifacts

By Lynda V. Mapes
The Seattle Times
October 6, 2005 - 12:00 AM

With a caretaker's vigilance, Tlingit elder Joe Hotch watches closely as the vacuum nozzle gently sweeps back and forth, cleansing a hand-woven tunic, more than a century old. Soon he'll take it home to its rightful owners in Southeast Alaska.

Hotch received the tunic on Tuesday from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, Calif., which repatriated the clan treasure that had been held in its collection since 1977. The tunic, with its subtle tones of cream, sage and yellow, is still in near-perfect condition and was likely reserved for use only in important traditional ceremonies, including potlatches.

But before getting on the plane to Juneau to take it home, Hotch made a stop yesterday at Seattle's Burke Museum.

The museum is the first in the country to create a testing program for lead, arsenic and mercury on tribal cultural objects, which were often treated with pesticides by collectors and museums from about the 1880s until about the 1960s.

The Burke also launched an unprecedented outreach program with Washington and Oregon tribes, taking a portable scanner to sample many of their collections for contaminates. Testing found that in Northwest Coast tribal museums, 11 percent of the objects are contaminated with arsenic residues; 17 percent are contaminated with lead and 2 percent are contaminated with mercury.

The contamination can pose a health risk, especially if the item is in close contact with the skin or mucus membranes, particularly of an elder, or a child.

The issue of potential contamination has taken on a new urgency with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, under which cultural treasures must be returned to their rightful owners: tribes around the country.

These objects are sometimes worn next to the skin, burned in sacred ceremonies, or re-buried, potentially posing a health risk in some instances if residues are released into the air, groundwater, or transmitted to people, said Jim Nason, director of the NAGPRA program at the Burke until his retirement last year.

Nason helped found the Metallic Pesticides Program in 2000 in collaboration with the University of Washington Health Sciences department to purchase the scanner and other equipment and combine the professional skills of archaeology and health sciences.

"The issue here is primarily detection, and measurement of the amount of risk," Nason said. "Some of these are objects that are going to be played or worn during ceremonies ˜ masks, musical instruments ˜ the possibility for contamination and high health risk is there."

Museums must by law state the risk, but only a handful of institutions have any testing ability, and very few even know how the objects in their collections have been treated, because they lack records, Nason said.

Some tribes, such as the Hopi in Arizona, have put a moratorium for now on further NAGPRA repatriations after receiving masks highly contaminated with arsenic.

Some cultural items have proved to be quite toxic. Some animal taxidermy stuffed with white arsenic tested at 30,000 times above EPA recommended levels for arsenic exposure, Nason said, and even higher.

"In some cases tribes are getting back materials that can never be touched, much less used."

In Washington, most items in tribal museums were found to be safe, because they had not left the community. But items returned from museums and historical societies have in some cases shown contamination, Nason said.

It was the Hearst Museum that alerted the Tlingit people that the tunic might be contaminated with DDT residue.

The daughter of an Alaskan fur trader, Louis Levey, donated the tunic to the museum in 1977 after Levey's death, said Richard Hitchock, NAGPRA coordinator for the museum.

It was Hotch, the Tlingit elder, who recognized the tunic when shown a picture of it from the museum's collection. He remembered pictures he had at home of the same tunic, worn by his relatives.

When he brings the tunic home this week, he will begin an extended homecoming journey. On Friday, Hotch, leader of the Kaagwaantaan Clan, will stop in Klukwan at each clan house, to share the tunic's homecoming. He'll stop at the church, at the school, the clinic and village office. Hotch will address the tunic as "him," not "it," because of the living spirits the clan believes the treasure carries.

As the tunic's caretaker, Hotch is also entitled to wear it at a welcoming ceremony. But he doesn't yet know if he will.

The tunic tested clean for lead, arsenic and mercury yesterday. But the scanner can't test for DDT ˜ and those test results won't be back yet.