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Oregon Natives Seek Return of Rare Meteorite

by Graceann Hall

The museum argues that the meteorite is not the kind of sacred object covered by the law
meteorite (IPS) NEW YORK -- An Oregon-based Native group is seeking the return of a rare 15 and a half ton meteorite, which crashed into the Earth approximately 10,000 years ago and is now on display in a prestigious New York museum.

Called the Willamette Meteorite, it is currently the centerpiece of the American Museum of Natural History's new $210 million Rose Center for Earth and Space. The museum has had the meteorite on display since 1935.

However, the tribe says the metallic iron rock is a sacred religious object, and is seeking its return under federal law. The meteorite first fell to Earth on Native land and was revered as a religious object until the U.S. government gained title to the area in an 1855 treaty with local tribes.

The land eventually became the property of the Oregon Iron and Steel Company. In 1902, the meteorite was found by a resident of the area, who dragged it to his own property and put it on display.

The steel company eventually sued, and won the return of the rock in a 1905 court case. In 1935, it was donated to the museum by a benefactor who purchased it from the steel company.

Now, nearly 100 years after they lost possession of the meteorite, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon is seeking its repatriation as a sacred religious object.

The claim is based on a 1990 federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which permits Native American cultural and religious artifacts in publicly-funded museums to be reclaimed.

On Feb. 28, after refusing a written request from the Tribe to voluntarily return the meteorite, the museum asked Federal Court Judge John Koetl to declare it the legal owner of the meteorite. According to court papers, iron meteorites are rare -- the Willamette is one of only 600 ever discovered.

The museum argues that the meteorite is not protected under NAGPRA because it is not the kind of sacred object covered by the law. For an object to qualify as sacred under federal law, it must be necessary for present-day American Indians to practice their traditional religions.

In a written statement, Tracy Dugan, a spokeswoman for the Tribes said, "The Confederated Tribes is shocked that the American Museum of Natural History insists upon illegally keeping this important sacred object which belongs to the history and culture of the Grand Ronde Tribes.

"The museum should do the right thing and resolve this dispute now, directly with our tribe, instead of marching off to court behind a squadron of attorneys."

Allen Turner, an attorney who specializes in legal anthropology, said he thought the museum was interpreting the law too narrowly. "I think it is unfortunate because...this meteorite is not the type of thing you carry around in your medicine bag," he said.

Turner said that to many Native people, "the land itself is holy," and added that if the Tribe failed to recover the meteorite under NAGPRA, it could turn to the American Indian Religious Act, which enshrines the right to freedom of religion.

NAGPRA has been successfully used in the past by several tribes in the southwestern United States such as the Hopi to repatriate religious and cultural objects.

Planetarium was built around the meteorite
The Clackamas tribe, part of the Confederated Tribes, considered the meteorite a holy representation of natural elements like sky, earth, and water and used it as part of their religious ceremonies. The Tribe reportedly employed the meteorite in purification ceremonies in which members would bathe their faces in the water that collected in the rock's craters.

The Indian Federation has not yet filed a response to the museum's legal claim.

But according to Jeff Fentress, an anthropology professor at San Francisco State University and an expert on NAGPRA, the Confederated Tribes can argue for repatriation under NAGPRA's Objects of Cultural Patrimony and Sacred Objects provision.

"I think they are going to have a hard time, but they can make a claim," said Fentress, who explained that the tribe will be required to document the religious purposes for which the meteorite was used.

Dugan refused to comment on the pending case, but issued a statement that said: "The tribe intends to gather their thoughts, communicate with their members, and then take the necessary steps to regain what is rightfully theirs."

On Feb. 19, the rebuilt Hayden Planetarium was opened to the public, allowing visitors to view the Willamette in its new setting. The planetarium was built around the meteorite, which is seven feet by 10 feet in diameter -- about the size of a car.

If the Grand Ronde's case is successful, parts of the planetarium would have to be removed before the meteorite could be moved.

The Confederated Tribes action is one in a series of recent cases where Native Americans are attempting to reclaim land, cultural symbols and rights.

In New York State, the Cayuga Indian tribe has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that their reservation land was sold in an illegal acquisition over 200 years ago. The Tribe is seeking millions of dollars and land as compensation.

Other ongoing land claims in New York State involve the Oneida Indians, as well as the Senecas and Mohawks.

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Albion Monitor April 3, 2000 (

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