Friday, April 29, 2005

Native American Iroquois Use Chemists To Help Clean Masks

New York: For more than 25 years, G. Peter Jemison had led the Seneca's efforts to get back ceremonial masks and other objects held for generations by museums. To traditional Iroquois people, the masks are powerful, living objects and part of the private religious practices shared among the six Iroquois nations, including the Seneca. In 1998 Jemison brought back more than 150 masks from the National Museum of the American Indian but was unable to return them to the elders. The reason: the masks were contaminated with pesticides. In an effort to preserve artifacts made from natural materials, museum staffs had applied pesticides to them. "At the time, no one fully understood the science to know what these numbers meant," Jemison said of the chemical test results. But the Iroquois are making progress on the contamination issue. A graduate-level chemist from the Tonawanda Seneca Reservation is working on scientific ways to safely test and clean the masks so they are safe to use again. In a few months, the Senecas may announce newly discovered methods for dealing with chemical contaminations, including lead 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.

For background information on other masks, see West Coast Indian Tribal Masks

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