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

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — When 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.

With the growth of internet communication tools from Skype to Facebook, the world has grown smaller for indigenous peoples just as it has for everyone else. The Winnemem themselves have hosted indigenous representatives from the Altai region of Mongolia, and Sisk-Franco made contacts with New Zealand’s Maori while attending a United Nations conference on indigenous issues.

But as the global community of indigenous peoples makes more connections, it’s likely more will be traveling abroad with religious regalia, which can include items such as feathers and eagle bone whistles that some countries might consider potential biohazards.As an island country with vulnerable native species and agricultural interests, New Zealand has reason to be zealous about protecting its economy and ecology from invasive species.

“We’re a small country with a small GDP, and we’re also an agricultural country with forestry and farming,” said Vivian McGlynn, a biodiversity manager with the Department of Conservation. “That’s why there’s such strict control at the borders. This is our livelihood.”

But the Winnemem’s traumatic experience raises question whether policy is flexible enough to appropriately respect indigenous people’s religious freedoms.

“There’s always been a poor fit between what mainstream law recognizes as religious practices and what’s sacred in practice to American Indians,” said Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at the University of Colorado’s American Indian Law Clinic. “It can be degrading. It’s like the pope not being allowed to cross the border with his communion wafers.”

In the states, the 1978 American Indians Religious Freedom Act protects American Indians’ access to sacred ceremonial items, but it doesn’t allow them to sue if their rights are compromised. “That’s why some people tend to view it as toothless,” Krakoff said. The Winnemem, as a federally unrecognized tribe, are in an even more precarious position as it could be legally argued they aren’t protected by the act even though their tribe’s history is well documented.

Internationally, the U.N. Declaration of Indigenous Rights, which New Zealand ratified this April after a three-year holdout, includes several provisions for protecting indigenous religious practices. (The U.S. remains one of the few countries that refuse to sign it). However, it’s still unclear how those prescriptions will percolate into actual policy, especially in relation to religious freedom.

“The declaration is going to be a very useful tool in the process of raising awareness in New Zealand of indigenous peoples’ issues, both domestically and internationally,” said Karen Johansen of New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission.

Johansen said that it’s possible the “one size fits” approach now taken by New Zealand biosecurity could be adapted to take irregular cases into account. She added that the biosecurity officials did work to accommodate the Winnemem, as initially it appeared that none of the regalia was going to be allowed into the country.

The Winnemem’s wood was treated to reduce the risk of live insects being imported to the country, and their feathers and deer hooves were fumigated against bird and animal diseases, said Steve Gay, team manager for biosecurity in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

The danger is very real, said Ellen Paul of the Washington-based Orinthological Council, as bird feathers can carry H1N1 influenza and Newcastle disease among other contaminants.

“I get calls all the time about these cultural issues. Most recently there was a woman who was making a feather cape and wanted to travel with it,” she said. “People who are traveling with these sorts of items have to be prepared to get the permits and understand the rules. There are serious biological concerns behind them.”

In New Zealand, about 42 percent of its birds and several other species have been driven to extinction because of invasive species (humans among them), and several crops have been put at risk by invasives, such as the white butterfly that feasts on cauliflower, cabbage and other crops.

“As a biologist, it makes you want to cry,” said Paul, who has in-laws in New Zealand and visits often.

This is, of course, little consolation to the Winnemem.

“It was a complete shock to travel all those miles and to have our stuff ruined. And now we have to go through the trauma of rebuilding it all,” Franco said. “There needs to be a separate process for people like us so this doesn’t happen again.”

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