Sacred Meteorites Under Glass: Tribes and First Nations Fight for Spiritual Integrity
In the Native community, deep-space rocks are not just astronomical curiosities; they are sacred objects. The recent sale of a piece of the Willamette Meteorite, revered by the Grand Ronde tribes of Oregon, and the Cree struggle to retrieve a 330-pound meteorite that is housed in an Alberta museum, are raising ire in Indian country on both sides of the 49th Parallel. When pieces of Turtle Island’s most famous meteorite, the Willamette, came up for auction on October 14 in New York City, the news did not go over well in Indian country.
“We’re deeply saddened that any individual organization would be so insensitive to Native American spirituality and culture as to traffic in the sale of a sacred and historic artifact, which is what the tribe considers any parts of Tomanowos,” said Dean Rhodes, publications coordinator for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon.
“A lot of ancestors of members of this tribe used to travel to that meteorite to dip their arrows in the water or to bathe in the water, feeling that it gave them extra power,” he said. “So the meteorite has a long history with this tribe.”
The Willamette Meteorite was revered by the Clackamas people, who today are among those represented by the Grand Ronde. The Clackamas called the rock Tomanowos, meaning “heavenly visitor” or “visitor from the moon.”
“The meteorite was a spiritual and sacred artifact of the Clackamas Chinook Indians, who eventually became part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde,” Rhodes said, adding that the artifact represents a “union between the sky, earth and water.”
The American Museum of Natural History did not know that history when it acquired the full meteorite in 1906. In 1998, a collector named Darryl Pitt secured a 28-pound piece of the object by trading it for a half-ounce piece of a meteorite that came from Mars. In 2002 Pitt sold a small piece of his Willamette portion; an attempt to sell more of it in a 2007 auction was unsuccessful, the Associated Press reported at the time.
Then, on October 14, as part of what was billed as the largest meteorite auction ever (125 pieces, about half of them from what is known as the Macovich Collection, which includes moon rocks and Martian meteorites), Pitt sold another piece of his Willamette for $2,000 through Heritage Auctions. A larger piece, which he had estimated to Forbes magazine would fetch $85,000, did not sell.
Pitt had acquired his pieces of the Willamette from the museum before the Grand Ronde claimed the meteorite in 1999 under the terms of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, arguing for its spiritual and cultural significance, The New York Times reported.
Scientifically speaking, Rhodes said, the Willamette is the iron core of a planetesimal (a minute planet) that was shattered in a stellar collision and fell from the sky more than 10,000 years ago, landing most likely in what is today the Idaho area. When the big floods occurred at the end of the Ice Age, creating the Columbia River basin, the rock flowed along with the waters, coming to rest just southeast of today’s Portland, Oregon.
Even though the Clackamas did not see the object fall, “they knew it wasn’t from the Earth,” Rhodes said. “The water, because of the iron in the meteorite, would turn somewhat acidic, so they knew it was something special.”
The sacred status of meteorites is much in the news, as spotlighted by the recent discovery of a statue thought to be of a Buddhist god, carved out of a rare ataxite meteorite. And currently, the Cree of Alberta are battling the Royal Alberta Museum for the sacred pahpamiyhaw asiniy, a 330-pound meteorite that is 4.5 billion years old.
Unlike the Willamette, this meteor’s descent was widely witnessed, with the rock landing hundreds of years ago in a blaze of light near what is today Hardisty, Alberta, CBC News said. The Cree say it contains the face of the Creator, but the museum wants to keep it on display as one of Canada’s largest meteorites.
If any common ground is to be found between the Cree and the Royal Alberta, it could lay in emulating an agreement reached between Grand Ronde and the American Museum of Natural History in 2000. Under the agreement, the exhibit is shut down each year in June while tribal members come to conduct ceremonies.
But such an accord would most likely be deemed unacceptable. “It needs to be taken care of by our people once again,” said Vincent Steinhauer, president of Blue Quills First Nations College in St. Paul, Alberta, to CBC News in August. “We’d like to repatriate the rock and welcome the rock back home where it should be.”