Poisoned Legacy

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.

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? “