Harmful Pesticides and Native American Collections

By: Dominic Henry

Lakota oral traditions tell that Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull smoked the sacred cannunpa, or pipe, and sought guidance through ceremony before going into battle with the U.S. Army. Crazy Horse stated “He sees an era when all colors of mankind will once again come together under the Sacred Tree of Life and the Earth will become one circle again.” Four days after being arrested and jailed at Fort Robinson, Crazy Horse was killed by U.S. Calvary, but the power of his words have never faded. Both Lakota leaders rebelled against the illegal taking of their lands, and confinement of their people, and fought in many battles, including the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Despite a long segment of painful history, the traditional Lakota ways have been preserved to this day.

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Plains Pipe Bags on display at the National Museum of the American (Washington, D.C.), Nation to Nation Treaty Exhibit curated by: Suzan Shown Harjo. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry
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Lakota Exhibit at the Harvard Peabody Museum curated by: Castle McLaughlin and Butch Thunder Hawk. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry

I recall discovering this information while conducting research on Plains peace pipes for a conservation project. Besides their magnificent craftsmanship, this type of research provided me with a wider range of understanding of the sensitive concepts that cultural items embody. In this case, the materials were not the actual cannunpa (pipes) from Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull, but my study led me to internally realize the highly significant ceremonial role pipes have among Native cultures of the Plains. As these cultural items are of great religious importance, it is almost uncomfortable to identify them as “items” or “objects” because they are imbued with sacred qualities and great spiritual power. I’m a firm believer that working directly with sacred objects requires one to be respectful, patient and understanding.

Preservation Care for Native Materials:

All Native Cultures of the Western Hemisphere produced many items for utilitarian, ceremonial and artistic purposes, each constructed with different, carefully selected materials (i.e. bark, animal skin, wood). As a result, today, many of these cultural resources require their own preservation and conservation needs, as well as sacred care. It is crucial for these resources to be in environments where temperatures are monitored to ensure they do not receive damage from pests and other natural elements. Many pests have natural attractions to specific items created with organic materials, like leather-goods, quills and feathers. Therefore, it is unfortunate when collections receive damage from various pests. In these cases, conservation treatments are conducted to restore the item back to its original form in the safest manner.

Dominic Henry Conservation
Dominic Henry conducting conservation treatment to a basket at the BLM Collections Repository in Colorado (U.S.A.). Photo Credit: Dominic Henry
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Dominic Henry cleaning a Totem Pole at the National Museum of the American Indian-Cultural Resources Center. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry

Pesticides on Native American Collections:

 When Native American people and their crafts intrigued collectors around the world, collectors became interested in many cultural materials. These collectors were simply fascinated by objects’ amazing craftsmanship and cultural origins, and their beauty and form were irresistible to a collector. Unfortunately, during the period of westward expansion in the United States, many theorized that through dispossession of indigenous homelands, American Indians and their cultures would eventually vanish. This belief, at the time, only further encouraged collectors to expand their collections of Native American cultural materials. A good portion of cultural items during this time were also looted from graves, sacred sites, and even massacre sites, and were traded or stolen. Textiles, sacred masks, clothing and ancestral remains were among the range of cultural resources that accumulated into collections, including museum collections. Today, some tribes are perplexed to find specific sacred items in collections, which traditionally could only be touched by certain individuals, like medicine men and other religious practitioners. Important cultural items have also ended up in auction houses; these priceless items are being sold for huge profits.

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Navajo textile and Pueblo Pottery from New Mexico and Arizona (U.S.A.) on display at the MFA in Boston. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry

The collector’s eye for these cultural resources soon developed into ensuring that these objects would last forever and to keep them free from pests. To sustain these items in their full embodiment, collectors treated these materials with arsenic, mercury, methyl bromide, sulfuryl fluoride and other hazardous pesticides without considering the long-term effects they could pose on traditions and public health. Things that Native people wore or danced in for prayers suddenly became toxic from hazardous pesticides.

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act- Section 10.10 (e) of the NAGPRA Regulations, the returning institution or museum must inform tribal communities about any hazardous materials on human remains and cultural items. Therefore, non-destructive testing is sometimes performed to measure various levels of pesticides on Native American collections, after first consulting with the tribes associated with the remains or cultural item. At one point, I assisted with such non-destructive testing using an XRF handheld machine, which read pesticide levels on ceremonial regalia. It was astonishing to see the various level readings from the collections.

Aftermath:

In all, cultural items that have been infested with pests and treated with pesticides are very dangerous, even deadly, to human health. For example, arsenic can cause respiratory problems and skin discoloration with body contact. Each NAGPRA repatriation case regarding hazardous pests is unique and handled on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, results and details are never disclosed; however, it is crucial that all information regarding pesticides is released to Native American tribes and that Indigenous Peoples are aware of the use of pesticides historically in museums throughout the world. While one museum may not have used pesticides, they may have obtained an item from another museum or private collector that did use pesticides.  This information is especially important, as ceremonial items may be placed back into use after repatriation, or individuals may handle items and remains. In addition, from a Native American perspective, some ceremonial regalia is meant to naturally deteriorate and return to Mother Earth, and in other situations, it is wrong to have sacred items tested with technology that causes disruptions in traditional protocols and traditions.

Tribal consultations with tribes for repatriation and on-going education are the best methods for keeping those involved informed in regards to the proper ethics of cultural preservation and public health for that particular tribe. A tribal member of California attending a NAGPRA workshop on pesticides once lamented, “I hate that regalia is poisoned.” In most cases, any individuals that comes in close contact with cultural items should always wear protective gear: lab coats, gloves or face masks.

However, international museums and private collectors have also used the presence of pesticides as an excuse to significantly delay or even prevent repatriation. As we have witnessed in the United States, tribal consultation leads to mutual decisions regarding the testing (or non-testing) and proper handling of these ancestral remains and cultural items. Contacting Native Nations should be the first step in notifying them of holdings in international museums and private collections, followed by tribal consultations regarding the repatriation of Ancestors and cultural items, which should include all known information about pesticide use within collections. At that point, the museum or private collection should consult that tribe (or other Indigenous community) about whether or not they would like to have testing done on the Ancestors or cultural items to further determine what pesticides were used. The tribe (or Indigenous community) may decide not to have this done, which is within their purview to self-determine the repatriation process (as spelled out in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) and they will determine how best to handle the Ancestors and cultural items recovered through repatriation. Central to consultation is the concept and the Indigenous right of free, prior, and informed consent.

We must never overlook the power of Native items: that Native peoples perceive as living, breathing, or as spiritual beings or relatives.

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Chief Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Lakota, Harvard Peabody Museum. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry.

In the case of the traditional Lakota cannunpa, or pipes, the stems—often ornately carved of wood and adorned with dyed porcupine quills and feathers—are always to be stored unassembled, and carefully bundled with items appropriate to feed and nurture the spirits of Lakota Ancestors whose blood in ancient times formed the “pipestone” from which ceremonial pipe bowls are still carved today. Lakota tiospayes, or extended families, maintain intergenerational living traditions for caring for, keeping and carrying pipes, and distinct social protocols and behavior are practiced in the presence of cannunpa at varied ceremonial, diplomatic, and celebratory occasions. The cannunpa today remains of central spiritual importance in Wolakota, or Lakota life ways and religion, and children are raised knowing about the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman, who brought the Lakota their first cannunpa and taught them its significance in sustaining new and old ceremonial practices for the people’s health and well-being.

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Panel from the Lakota Exhibit at the Harvard Peabody Museum. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry

Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Lakota Nation is the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe. His great-grandfather was Chief Big Foot who was killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre. He explained, “the cannunpa is cared for like a baby; it is washed and cleansed with sage, and only natural things are used in ceremonies, no modern chemicals. This also ensures proper spiritual connections are made during ceremony when communication with medicine takes place. The cannunpa must always be cared for, as it holds the Lakota people together. A cannunpa is only made with natural materials, it is both an honor and important role to be a keeper. It is given sacred offerings of medicine. You take care of spiritual items in a certain way for all Lakota people.” Chief Arvol Looking Horse is also the founder of World Peace and Prayer Day.

Jennifer Weston, Hunkpapa Lakota from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, notes how many families on Lakota reservations care for their own tiospaye cannunpa, and also revere the pipe bundle held by Arvol Looking Horse at Green Grass on the neighboring Cheyenne River Sioux reservation. “Our families all consider one another as relatives, and through our annual ceremonial cycle, younger generations today continue to learn the significance of the White Buffalo maiden’s story—how she brought us a new way of life and precious teachings for protecting our people, our water, our homelands, all our precious resources, including wakanyeja, the children in our families and communities. Many families pass down a name inspired by the White Buffalo Woman, and continue to honor her significant role in shaping our spiritual practices past and present. It’s heartbreaking to know that some cannunpa and the knowledge and stories their hide and leather bundles contain, are subjected to such objectionable practices by institutions and collectors who deliberately introduce toxins into a spiritual item.”

Weston is grateful for organized efforts like those of AAIA International Repatriation Project to educate museums, and to bring tribal cultural and spiritual patrimony home, and offers a quote from Sitting Bull that all young people on Standing Rock learn while growing up and being encouraged to have hope that Native families and communities can actively create a better future together.

“Our tribal college, now named after him—Sitting Bull College—has adopted one of his most well-known sentiments from the early reservation era, which was a very dark time for our people. But his quote conveys that we can improve any situation no matter what the challenges, through our strength and fortitude as Lakota people working together. He said, ‘Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children. Wakanyeja kin lena epi ca taku wasteste iwicunkiciyukcanpi kte.’”

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