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Tribe uses chemistry to serve heritage

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    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

    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

    "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

    "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

    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

    "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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  • #2

    "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

    [email protected].
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    • #3
      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

      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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