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Meteorite Case Update Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by Diedtra Henderson

Archaeologists are closely watching an escalating custody battle between a coalition of western Oregon tribes and the American Museum of Natural History over a 15.5-ton meteorite, wondering how a law that has resulted in the return of thousands of artifacts and dozens of human remains would apply in the less familiar natural sciences realm.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde filed a claim under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) last November seeking the return of the Willamette Meteorite to land traditionally held by tribal members. They consider the rock a spirit that traveled from the moon and call it Sky Person, or Tamanamas in the Chinook language. Tribal members once collected water that pooled in the rock's cavities for medicinal use and dipped arrows in it for courage during battles or hunts; those seeking strength and children at puberty seeking spirit power also made pilgrimages to Tamanamas.

Calling the meteorite a "feature of the landscape" that belongs to the landowner, the museum denied the tribe's request and subsequently filed a federal lawsuit that aims to invalidate their NAGPRA repatriation claim. "We believe that NAGPRA does not cover this type of object," Evan A. Davis, the attorney handling the museum's lawsuit, told Archaeology.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde signed a treaty in 1855 ceding the land where the 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite lay to the United States. By the time a miner "discovered" the meteorite in 1902, the land belonged to the Oregon Iron and Steel Company. Regardless, the miner spent 3 months dragging the meteorite three-quarters of a mile to his house, where he charged 25 cents per head for curious visitors. The Museum of Natural History purchased the meteorite from Iron and Steel Company in 1906 after the Oregon Supreme Court ruled the company--not the miner--was its rightful owner.

The meteorite, largest in the nation and sixth largest in the world, now holds "a place of honor" on the main floor of the museum's new $210 million Center for Earth and Space in New York, according to the lawsuit. 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.

The western Oregon tribes were disappointed by the museum's lawsuit. "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," spokeswoman Tracy Dugan said in a prepared statement, "we intend to gather our thoughts, communicate with our tribal members and, then, take the steps necessary to regain what is rightfully ours."

In response to a NAGPRA claim, another Oregonian rock was returned to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla by the city of Portland in 1996. The ten-ton basalt boulder, known as the Wallula Stone, was covered with petroglyphs and marked the spot where young men were sent to test their strength and courage. The Umatilla had ceded the land where it was found to the United States in a 1855 treaty. Unlike the Wallula Stone, says museum attorney Davis, the Willamette meteorite "has never been marked or altered. There's no indication it was ever moved by the tribe. No custody or control was taken over it."

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America