June 11, 2010

New Zealand fumigates sacred regalia

Incident in New Zealand highlights the perils of tribal travel in the modern age

By Marc DadiganWhen the Winnemem Wintu tribe traveled from their home in California to New Zealand this spring, they carried with them dozens of hard-coated suitcases and bazooka-shaped tubes, protection for some of their most delicate and hallowed possessions.

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.
Comment:  I'll have to side with New Zealand on this one. As the article notes, bio-contamination is a huge problem in such remote locations.

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:Would the pope, she wondered, have to submit to such a process if he arrived with similar regalia?I'd say the answer would be yes if his regalia consisted of animal parts; otherwise no. I don't see any evidence that the officials singled out the Winnemem Wintu because they were Native.

For more clashes involving Native values, see Teacher's Aide Chopped Native Boy's Hair and Rock Art = 3rd-Grade Doodling?


Mark Franco said...

Just a quick note. We did investigate the procedures. Because this is regalia older than the time limit set for contamination and it is religious wear for ceremony, we were assured by US and NZ personnel that they would not need such invasive treatment. The surprise came when we were in country, where it was too late for us to back out.
We continued on, regalia damage or not, and danced and prayed as we said we would.
Thank you for posting the article. I look forward to following your blog. Good job.
Mark Franco
Winnemem Wintu Tribe

Rob said...

Thanks for the information. I've updated the item to reflect it.

I guess the comments in the article threw me. It sounded as though the inspection process surprised your people.

If you knew about the process but expected to bypass it, I would've expected a different response. Something like, "We understand the need for inspections, but US and New Zealand officials assured us that our regalia would be exempt."