Contaminated Collections:
Issues for Tribes and Museums

"This (information) needs to be shared with all Indian people so they are (kept) abreast to whatever is happening and can share with each other... how to handle the problems."

"This increased my sensitivity to this issue from the Native People’s viewpoint. From my collections manager viewpoint, it increased my basic knowledge of past chemical treatment…"

"I hate that regalia is poisoned".                          
                                                                -Comments from workshop particpants

History Of The Project
In 2001, the National Park Service awarded California State Parks a $41,635 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) grant to plan and implement a series of workshops throughout the state to bring together tribal members and museum staff to examine the issue of contaminated collections.  Robert Stearns, National NAGPRA Program Manager wrote: "The National NAGPRA Program and the NAGPRA Review Committee are concerned about the past use of pesticides to preserve collections, and the potential effects that these chemicals may still have. National NAGPRA funded this project because of its educational focus and collaborative approach, with tribal representatives and museum staff working together on this important issue." The result was a true cross-cultural collaboration involving federal and state agencies, two contractors, California Indian people from numerous tribes and staff from a variety of museums. Our common bond was deep concern about this important issue.

Goals And Objectives
The project’s goals were to:

  1. Inform tribes and museum workers how and why pesticides were used on the objects.
  2. Clarify the nature of these pesticides, the kinds of pests that they targeted, and to understand the kinds of health problems that can be caused by their use.
  3. Explore ways for tribes to safely use contaminated objects.
  4. Identify methods by which testing can be made compatible with Indian beliefs and traditions.

Preservation, Prevention and Problems
Since early in human history, people have attempted to prevent rodents and insects from devouring their collections. Measures to inhibit the growth of mold on collections of writing materials have been discovered in Middle Eastern archaeological sites; many Indian peoples devised means of preventing the destruction of food resources by the invention of storage containers of various kinds and the use of natural materials which acted as repellants. Cedar wood was found to be such a material and cedar boxes are used as an effective means of protecting organic objects from pest damage.  However, in the period which followed the voyages to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, many collectors and keepers of royal, private and public collections found that the size and varieties of their holdings created new conditions which could not be managed by traditional methods. As entire collections of rare butterflies, animal skins, shells, baskets and textiles were destroyed before their eyes, curators and collectors began to experiment with a variety of potions and chemicals. Through trial and error, a number of chemicals proved to be highly effective. Unfortunately, some of these elements – such as arsenic and mercury – were harmful to more than just pests. The same components that had the ability to protect were also poisonous. Those who treated the collections to protect them changed the objects into toxic health hazards.  Among the many organic objects treated by collectors and keepers, were thousands of Indian artifacts.

What Does This Have To Do With Repatriation?
In 1990, the Federal government enacted NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) which requires museums to return human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to culturally affiliated Indian tribes. In compliance with the new law, museums notified tribes of their holdings and Indian people began to visit institutions, which held their materials. Tribes were hopeful that the return of these materials would facilitate a revival of traditions and enable them to put their ancestors to rest. As more consultations took place, tribal representatives and museum collection managers became aware that many Indian collections had been treated with toxic substances. Sadly, since these treatments were considered standard preservation treatment, the names and doses of the substances were rarely recorded.

In December of 1995, NAGPRA was amended to reflect this problem. It now reads:

The museum official or Federal agency official must inform the recipients of repatriations of any presently known treatment of the human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects or objects of cultural patrimony with pesticides, preservatives or other substance that present a potential hazard to the objects or to the persons handling the objects.

Where Do Things Stand Now?
Until recently, the removal of these substances was thought to be impossible, but German researchers discovered a method for removing and destroying the organic pesticides on objects (Royal Society of Chemistry, Fall 2002). Vacuuming and using lasers and other light technology can reduce the concentration of arsenic and mercury pesticides. They cannot, as yet, be completely removed or neutralized.

What Can Museums And Tribes Do?  Start Here!

Click on the thumbnail below for full size image:

Dr. Otis Morgan, Jr., Director of DQ University, welcomes workshop participants Workshop participants at DQ University: (from left to right) Leo Carpenter, Jr. (Hoopa), Gary Thomas, Elem Indian Colony Round House, and Meyo Marrufo, CRM/NAGPRA Programs Director, Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians Workshop presenters Paulette Hennum and Dr. Niccolo Caldararo Ted Robertson, Director of Educational Facilities at Lawrence Hall of Science, demonstrates how to remove contaminated gloves safely Workshop presenter Yolanda Chavez demonstrates protective gear

Project Staff
Dr. Niccolo Caldararo holds a degree in Anthropology and a doctorate in Developmental Psychology. He has been a conservator in private practice for over twenty years. He has lectured and published widely and worked in a number of museums. Since 1995, he has served as adjunct professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University.

Yolanda Chavez holds a BA in Anthropology and has completed graduate studies at CSU Los Angeles. She has spoken extensively on anthropology, archaeology, cultural resource management and NAGPRA issues. She served as NAGPRA Director of the Lake County Tribal Consortium. She currently works for the Bureau of Land Management at the Ukiah Field Office as Tribal Relations Liaison.

Project Coordinator
Paulette Hennum earned a BA in Visual Arts from UC San Diego and has served as NAGPRA Coordinator and Museum Curator with California State Parks since 1998. She has worked in museums since 1980 and was previously the Registrar at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and the San Diego Historical Society.

Links: please visit SFSU Identifying Poisons in California NAGPRA Artifact Materials