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Friday, 17 March 2000
Artifacts may be a threat to Indians
Items being returned could now be poisonous
By Sarah Garrecht Gassen
The Arizona Daily Star
As museums return American Indian artifacts to tribes as directed by
law, their efforts to preserve the historic items may be presenting a health
threat to the original owners.
The repatriated artifacts may have been treated with pesticides and
poisons, including arsenic, to preserve them and keep insects from
destroying objects the museums intended to display behind glass.
But after the federal 1990 Native American Graves Protection and
Repatriation Act, important cultural items began to be returned to their
tribes, often to be included in ceremonies and handled, or kept in people's
The Arizona State Museum is playing host to a national conference on
Indian tribes can deal with the problem.
The three-day conference has attracted cultural leaders from 16 of Arizona's
21 tribes, as well as curators and conservators from museums such as the
Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and the Field Museum in
The conference coincides with the Arizona State Museum's collection
20,000 pots from across the Southwest being designated an ``official
project'' of the the Save Americas Treasures, a public-private partnership
between the White House and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Museums' goals for the objects are different from the tribes', said
Sadongei, the state museum's American Indian programs coordinator. Important
cultural objects were kept in institutions ``never to be reburied, never to
be used again, preserved for perpetuity.''
Leigh Kuwaniwiswma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office,
related his experience with repatriation. He said the Hopis will be calling
for a halt to repatriation until the contamination issue is settled.
While there are financial aspects, such as who pays for testing, the
is also cultural, Kuwaniwiswma said. For instance, spiritual leaders had to
decide if samples from three Kachina masks - called Kachina friends - could
be cut away and taken for testing.
``We must have a working relationship of science and cultural interests,''
he said. ``While they (sacred objects) may be of material substance, they
carry the living essence.''
Testing found that the Kachina friends had been contaminated with arsenic
but only after they had already been in the possession of families and
stored alongside their corn supply.
Education is also key because the tribal members in charge of repatriation
are not always the religious leaders who decide how the sacred items will be
used, Kuwaniwiswma said.
Locally, the Tohono O'odham have formed a committee to look at building
museum, likely near Sells. They're now in the process of gathering support
within the tribe to ask for funding from the tribal legislative council.
Camillus Lopez, a legislative representative from the Gu-achi district
vice president of the cultural preservation committee, said it is vital that
Tohono O'odham objects come home.
``I've seen how objects are desecrated and honor is lost,'' Lopez said.
Some items have been returned to the Tohono O'odham, such as human remains,
and have been reburied.
The contamination issue is troubling because even if remains or funerary
objects are reburied, ``someone has to handle them.''
More objects, largely pots, are awaiting delivery at the Arizona State
Museum, said tribal committee member Stanley Cruz.
``We don't have a place to bring back the items,'' Cruz said, adding
museum might also have a storage area. The issue of whether the museum would
be built for economic development - and open to the general public - or for
tribal cultural use hasn't been tackled, he said.
Cruz said he only recently heard about the possibility of contamination.
``I don't really know what the dangers are,'' he said. ``A lot tribes
know how museums preserved their objects.''
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