By Marc Dadigan
Inside were feather trailers, headdresses, spears, manzanita firewood and a variety of sacred regalia that are inextricably tied to the small tribe's spiritual beliefs and were required for a ceremony they planned to hold while abroad. To the Winnemem, these are items of the highest religious potency.
But to New Zealand Biosecurity officials these were also items that posed a potential threat to their island's delicate ecosystem and agricultural industry.
One official insisted on inspecting a spirit basket that belonged to the tribe's spiritual leader Caleen Sisk-Franco. The basket is a sacred healing item more than 100 years old and had never before been seen by outsiders.
"I need you to open that," the official said, despite Sisk-Franco's protests. Inside were four tiny flicker feathers, less than an inch long and each as old as the basket itself. They had never been removed in more than a century.
"We're going to have to fumigate those," the official said.
"Don't you understand these aren't ordinary feathers?" Sisk-Franco said. She explained that the official was asking her to kill the spirits in the feathers that had been passed down through the generations.
"Either you'll have to mail it back, or you'll have to allow us to fumigate it," the official replied firmly. "There are no other options."
As the tribe's chief and spiritual leader, she felt humiliated. Would the pope, she wondered, have to submit to such a process if he arrived with similar regalia?
Sisk-Franco ended up mailing the feathers back to the states, which damaged their efficacy. The rest of the Winnemem's regalia was fumigated and treated with a form of formaldehyde. About a week later, the feathers were returned congealed and torn, and reeking of chemicals. During the ceremony, the deer toes, typically hard and rigid, turned rubbery and crumbled from the dancers' regalia.
"It was like they took the shroud of Turin and set it on fire," said headman Mark Franco, who's also Sisk-Franco's husband.
Apparently someone miscommunicated at some point. Did the Winnemem Wintu misunderstand New Zealand's regulations? Or did the airport officials misunderstand them? Impossible to say from this vantage point.
As for this question:
For more clashes involving Native values, see Teacher's Aide Chopped Native Boy's Hair and Rock Art = 3rd-Grade Doodling?