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Old 03-17-2005, 10:08 PM   #1
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Tribe uses chemistry to serve heritage

This message is reprinted under the Fair Use
Doctrine of International Copyright Law:
http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html



http://www.rochesterdandc.com/apps/p...6/NEWS01/50316
0327/1002/NEWS




Restoring sacred masks

Tribe uses chemistry to serve heritage

Diana Louise Carter
Staff writer

(March 16, 2005) - For more than 25 years, G. Peter Jemison had observed and
then led the Seneca people's efforts to get back ceremonial masks and other
objects that had been in the hands of museums for generations.

Sometimes displayed by museums despite native nations' cultural taboos on
public viewing, more often locked away in storage cabinets, the masks are seen by
traditional Iroquois peoples as powerful, living objects. They are part of
the private religious practices shared among the six Iroquois nations, including
the Seneca. And a 1990 federal law allowed their return.

So it was a victory of sorts in 1998 when Jemison, a Seneca and then head of
the Iroquois Confederacy's committee on repatriation, was able to bring back
more than 150 masks from the National Museum of the American Indian.

The taste of victory, though, soon turned to ashes.

In a historic gathering that year, elders from Iroquois communities on both
sides of the U.S.-Canadian border met at the Longhouse at Onondaga, near
Syracuse, to receive their sacred objects. Jemison, though, was forced to give them
a new reason to mourn: The masks were contaminated with pesticides.

"The issue of contamination truly did not arise until we were headed down the
homestretch for their return," Jemison said recently. In an effort to
preserve artifacts made of such natural materials as wood, horsehair, cornhusks and
leather, museum staffs had applied pesticides to them.

Since that day, the Iroquois have been trying to figure out what to do with
the contaminated artifacts.

"At the time, no one fully understood the science to know what these numbers
meant," Jemison said of the test results he received in 1998. Now the issue is
gaining urgency as the Iroquois expect to use repatriation laws to reclaim
potentially thousands of other sacred objects from U.S. museums. The Rochester
Museum & Science Center alone has about 250 Iroquois masks that may be subject
to repatriation.

But the Iroquois are making progress on the contamination issue. A
graduate-level chemist who comes from the tiny Tonawanda Seneca Reservation, near Akron,
Erie County, is working on scientific protocols for testing and cleaning the
masks without damage so they can be made safe to use again.

In a few months, the Senecas may announce to the rest of the confederacy, and
possibly to other native nations, some proven methods for dealing with
chemical contamination, including pesticides and lead. Lead contamination could come
from paint originally used by the masks' makers.

"It's really some kind of cutting-edge research that we're doing that could
benefit the whole field," said Rick Hill, head of the Haudenosaunee Standing
Committee on Burial and Repatriation. (The Iroquois call themselves
Haudenosaunee.)

The methods are likely to be received with great interest by native nations
dealing with similar issues.

And staffers at two museums said they, too, are interested, as they are just
starting to address the potential risks posed by the pesticides that
generations of museum staffers used to keep objects safe from bugs.

No more mothballs

When Adele DeRosa started working for the Rochester Museum & Science Center
35 years ago, it was common to see open containers of mothballs lying among
artifacts in storage. Since then, naphthalene has fallen out of common use
because of potential health risks. "What was scientific then is outdated," said
DeRosa, collections registrar for the museum. Earlier generations of museum
management used many other kinds of pesticides.

"When (anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan) was in operation, he was probably
using arsenic and mercury," said Bart A. Roselli, RMSC vice president of
collections and programs. Many of the prized objects in the museum's Seneca
artifacts collection come from Morgan's 19th-century collection. Morgan, a Rochester
lawyer, studied the Iroquois and founded the modern U.S. science of
anthropology.

"Museum records are so poor, it's hard to say when it was done, how it was
done," Hill said of the occurrence of contamination. But as a former museum
curator who now peruses collections around the country with an eye toward
repatriation, he understands the need for pest control. "I've seen museum collections
decimated by bugs."

Roselli could find virtually no records of that sort at RMSC, but got some
hints from a museum management manual written by one of its former directors. In
his 1935 "A Manual for History Museums," Seneca expert Arthur C. Parker
suggested soaking objects in gasoline, or applying arsenic and other toxic
chemicals such as carbon disulfide and paradicholoribenzine.

Parker couldn't foresee that someday someone would want to wear the masks
again.

"Some of these heavy metals would be soaked into skin if you sweat," Hill
said. But given that the known amounts are tiny, and the masks might be used only
a couple of times a year, he said, "You'd probably do more harm to yourself
drinking a Diet Pepsi ... than wearing one of these masks." On the other hand,
he said, some tests have shown chemical levels of real concern.

But just knowing that trace amounts of heavy metals and organic compounds
exist on the masks has caused most of the Iroquois who've received them to hold
off using them until they can be tested further and perhaps cleaned, Jemison
said.

Tests on a sample of the masks Jemison brought back in 1998 indicated that 7
percent had traces of arsenic. Later tests put that figure at 15 percent.
Still other tests that looked for a wider variety of substances put the percentage
of contaminated masks at 90 percent.

"You just don't know what the real levels of mercury and arsenic are," said
Peter Reuben, a chemistry graduate student who has been hired by the Seneca
Nation of Indians. And as to what's safe, those numbers are subject to change.

Reuben, who is experienced at working with surface-reacting agents known as
surfactants, was charged with coming up with ways to test and treat the objects
in culturally sensitive ways - no small task.

After working closely with Haudenosaunee elders, Reuben developed this rule
of thumb for his scientific prodding and poking: "Would this be something you
would do to your grandmother?"

If the answer was no, he said, then he cannot use it. That ruled out many
standard scientific methods, such as taking borings, sanding surfaces, scouring
objects with solvents and freezing or freeze-drying artifacts.

"To be culturally sensitive, that does present unique limitations," Reuben
said as he sat in the living room of his parents' home on the Tonawanda
Reservation. But as a chemist and a Seneca - the American Academy of Science reports
that less 0.01 percent of graduate degrees in science are held by Native
Americans - Reuben has the qualifications to match cultural sensitivity with
scientific expertise.

So far, he has developed a method of washing masks that appears to be gentle
and simple. He recently demonstrated the method for members of the Standing
Committee when they met in Salamanca, Cattaraugus County.

Using a block of wood, he sprayed on a liquid - a proprietary mixture of
rubbing alcohol, water and mild cleaning agent. He let the mixture run off into a
basin, explaining that the amounts of contaminants are so tiny that the liquid
could be safely disposed down a drain.

The method works because of the way that chemicals interact with the
surfactant blend. Some of the chemicals dissolve in water, while others bind with
fatty substances in the cleanser, and still others dissolve in alcohol.

"It's not all that different from what's being used (on) pesticides on a
daily basis," Reuben said "What's unique is applying it to sensitive objects."

Progress this year

The Senecas are considering buying testing technology to be sure that after
an object has been washed, it no longer has toxic chemicals on the surface.
Reuben said he aims to "get the levels of contaminants to nondetectable levels."

Hill said the Standing Committee may recommend to fellow Iroquois that they
simply wash the masks with Reuben's cleansing method and not worry about
testing.

"Certainly by June we would do some training with museums and our own
people," Hill said. "By this summer and early fall we will have done a lot to treat
the objects."

Museum workers have been talking about the potential dangers of pesticides in
museum collections for at least a decade. DeRosa recalls a conservator - a
museum scientist who specializes in understanding the materials in objects and
caring for them - who recommended pest management without chemicals in the
1980s at RMSC.
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Old 03-17-2005, 10:09 PM   #2
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cont.....

"If you're bringing in new objects, you would isolate them for some time,"
said Lisa Anderson, repatriation coordinator at the New York State Museum in
Albany. To destroy bugs, "You can either freeze them or microwave them."

In terms of testing and treating objects already contaminated with pesticide,
Anderson said, "We're just getting our feet wet with this. Whatever we're
doing, we're doing in consultation with the tribes."

Roselli at RMSC freely admits that the Native American nations who are
reclaiming objects are really leading the museums in understanding and dealing with
the problem and its cultural ramifications.

"It isn't just science. It isn't just black and white. It's diplomacy," he
said.

[email protected].
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Old 03-17-2005, 10:09 PM   #3
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Contaminants
Some of these contaminants have been found or are likely to be found in
artifacts being returned to Native Americans:


Arsenic - A naturally occurring element that in high amounts can cause death.
Contact may result in discoloration of skin and appearance of warts. Low,
long-term exposure can cause cancer in humans.


Lead - A naturally occurring metal, lead can harm the central nervous system
and most organs in adults, and especially in children, whose physical and
mental growth could also be stunted even by relatively low levels.


Mercury - A natural metal, often in liquid form at room temperature.
Particularly in vapor form, it can damage the brain, kidney and developing fetuses,
along with the central nervous system. Some forms of this element are suspected
carcinogens.


Naphthalene - High exposures to this moth repellant can damage or destroy red
blood cells, causing anemia.


Benzene - A chemical found in gasoline and a byproduct of combustion, benzene
in high amounts can cause death. It is known to cause cancer in humans and
can also harm red blood cells and bone marrow, leading to anemia and leukemia.


Carbon disulphide - Used in manufacturing processes, this compound can cause
nerve damage, sleeplessness and headaches after repeated high exposures.


DDT - The manufactured compound causes central nervous system damage and is a
suspected human carcinogen.


Source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Federal Centers for
Disease Control.
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