SFSU researchers confirm an Indian tribe's fear that ceremonial artifacts
at San Francisco State University have confirmed what a California Indian
tribe has long feared -- that repatriated artifacts are tainted with
potentially dangerous pesticides.
Analyses conducted by Associate Professor Pete Palmer, alumnus Matthew
Martin and undergraduate Gregory Wentworth found mercury, DDT and naphthalene
on samples taken from 17 ceremonial artifacts that the Peabody Museum
at Harvard University recently returned to the Hoopa Valley Indian Tribe.
"What we found were levels of mercury on nearly every object and
some of them had very high levels of DDT," said Palmer, an analytical
The artifacts -- headbands, feathers, baskets and other pieces -- were
taken from the tribe in the early 1900s and displayed at the Peabody
Museum until 2001, when they were returned to the Hoopa through the
1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Museums have long used chemicals to protect pieces from damage by rodents,
insects and microorganisms. The Hoopa had intended to use repatriated
pieces in religious ceremonies, said David Hostler, former director
of the Hoopa Tribal Museum. But after learning the items probably contained
trace amounts of dangerous chemicals, tribal members wrapped the pieces
in plastic and placed them in a museum storage area.
"I feel very sad about this because [the pieces] are part of our
religion," said Hostler, adding that thousands of other Hoopa artifacts
-- most of them probably tainted -- are still held by museums around
"This is not only a health issue for Native Americans but is in
my mind a public health issue," Palmer said. "Museum professionals
could be coming in contact with these objects and may not be aware they're
San Francisco State first became involved with the artifacts when tribe
members approached anthropology Professor Lee Davis, an expert on Native
American repatriation, for help retrieving the pieces from the Peabody
The SFSU research was reported in the March 15 issue of Environmental
Science & Technology, published by the American Chemical Society.