A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A coalition of Western Oregon tribes has filed a repatriation claim under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to recover the Willamette Meteorite, the largest meteorite to be found in one piece in the United States.
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde consider the rock a spirit that fell from the Moon. They call it Sky Person, or Tamanamas in the Chinook language. In years past, tribal members collected water that pooled in the rock's cavities for medicinal use or dipped arrows in it for courage during battles or hunts; those seeking strength and children at puberty seeking spirit power made pilgrimages to it as well, tribal members say.
NAGPRA is more frequently used to retrieve ancient human remains, grave goods, and cultural artifacts, such as ceremonial rattles and Zuni war gods, and this simmering dispute among natural scientists and Native Americans has piqued the interest of a few archaeologists who wonder how the act will play out in this less familiar arena. A few battles over bones, such as the Kennewick Man remains, have engendered acrimony, but so far no tempers have flared in the big rock case. The Grand Ronde filed its paperwork by a late-November deadline. The American Museum of Natural History, which has displayed the rock since 1906 when it was donated to the museum, was to reply by mid-January. On the day its response was due, the museum asked the tribe for an extension until Feb. 29. Anne Canty, director of media relations for the museum, declined further comment, saying "We do not discuss pending NAGPRA claims."
Last week, the 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite took center stage when the museum opened its new $210 million Center for Earth and Space, where it is prominently displayed.
To scientists, older-than-Earth meteorites help explain how the solar system came into being and matured. The Willamette Meteorite's size and complete reheating and recrystallization in space make it unusual, says John Wasson, a University of California, Los Angeles, geochemistry and chemistry professor. It's especially photogenic because the elements carved a bold, sharply etched pattern.
The Grand Ronde tribe made seeing the meteorite its first priority during NAGPRA-sponsored visits to various museums that held culturally significant objects. "To be close to it, to be able to know my ancestors stood in the presence of this stone was a real moving experience for me," said June Olson, the tribe's cultural resource manager. The tribe wants to return the rock to land traditionally held by Clackamas, Rogue River, Kalapuya, Mollalla, Umpqua and Chasta tribal members.
Tim McKeown, who oversees such claims for the National Park Service, says the tribe has the burden of proof on three points:
- the tribe must have standing
"For each of these three issues, the tribe has the 'burden of proof.' They must tip the scales every so slightly their way in order to prevail," McKeown said. The museum must present evidence it legally acquired the object.