Tribal trouble

Published: Tuesday 15 April 2003

An analysis of museum artifacts returned to the Hoopa tribe of the us reveals traces of mercury and various pesticides, including ddt. Such chemicals -- commonly applied by museums to protect their collections against pests -- could pose a risk for the health of tribal members who may wear the objects during their religious ceremonies.

The objects analysed were kept at the Peabody Museum of the US-based Harvard University for most of the 20th century. In 1997, after three years of negotiation, 17 items were returned to the tribe, along with a letter saying the objects may be contaminated with a variety of pesticides. A curator at the Hoopa tribal museum arranged for chemical analysis of the objects, which included headbands, feathers, baskets, necklaces and other ceremonial artifacts. Seven of the 17 artifacts had a mercury level of more than one per cent by weight, and one object had a level of more than 16 per cent. Naphthalene and ddt were also found in almost all the objects.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 allows federally recognised tribes to request that museums return objects taken from their ancestors. "Many native Americans are now doing so," says Peter Palmer, a professor of chemistry at the US-based San Francisco State University, and the lead author of the paper. There is currently no straight-forward method to decontaminate the objects without damaging them. Therefore, until a detailed study is conducted, Palmer suggests that the artifacts should not be worn.

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