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Cover of the spring 2003 SFSU magazine. Geography Professor Max Kirkeberg and students tour of San Francisco's Western Addition.

 

SFSU Magazine Online, Spring/Summer 2003, Volume 3, Number 2.
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Campus BeatA photo of several woven baskets, black with tan triangles. These are repatriated ceremonial artifacts from a California Indian tribe.

 

Tainted Treasures
SFSU researchers confirm an Indian tribe's fear that ceremonial artifacts are contaminated

Researchers 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 chemist.

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 the country.

"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 contaminated."

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 Museum.

The SFSU research was reported in the March 15 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, published by the American Chemical Society.

-- Anne Burke

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