Grand Ronde relic goes on the auction block

GRANDE RONDE TERRITORY, Ore. ? Pieces of a sacred Grand Ronde relic were sold by a private collector despite the outcries of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

The shards are part of the 15.5-ton Willamette meteorite that crashed to earth over 100 years ago in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The meteorite was donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1906 and it has remained there ever since. It is part of a collection that was auctioned off in Tucson, Ariz. on Feb. 10.

"We are saddened people would try to profit from selling a sacred object," said Brent Merril, a Grand Ronde spokesman. "This is a trait of some folks in the dominant culture."

The Grand Ronde maintain that the meteorite belongs to them and was removed under questionable circumstances from its sacred place in the Willamette Valley. An ironworks facility was awarded title to the land where the impact site was in a court ruling in 1903. A private collector, Mrs. William E. Dodge, who in turn donated to it the Museum of Natural History, then purchased the meteorite.

This was all done without the consent of the Clackamas Tribe, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The meteorite was considered to be a sacred gift from the sky and is referred to as "Tomonowos", translated roughly as "the Heavenly Visitor," by the Clackamas. Tribal warriors used water that gathered in the pockets of the meteorite as medicine to empower their weapons before battle and the meteorite was considered to have healing and cleansing properties.

The Clackamas were removed by force from their homeland near Portland by the U.S. Cavalry and forced to live in prison camp like conditions at Grande Ronde. The Clackamas eventually ceased to exist as a tribal entity in the Willamette Valley and ties to their sacred sites there were weakened.

"It was desolate so they brought them here," remarked Merril.

Darryl Pitt, curator of the Macovich Collection of Meteorites, conducted the auction. Pitt has been obtaining

shards of the meteorite from museums and collectors in the United States and the United Kingdom for four years. The Grand Ronde refused to participate in the auction on the grounds that it did not want to support the marketing of spiritually significant items, according to an earlier statement.

A dispute between the Grand Ronde and the museum erupted two years ago. The Grand Ronde demanded the return of the largest piece of the meteorite, which is about the size of a Volkswagen, because of its cultural and spiritual significance. Tensions were eased when the Confederated Tribes and the museum granted them access to the meteorite to perform religious and ceremonial activities.

Pitt has said previously that he has the greatest respect for the Grand Ronde beliefs and suggested that the Museum of Natural History purchases the whole meteorite and donates it back to the tribe, at its expense.

The museum was not interested in the suggestion.

Two shards of the meteorite garnered $14,400 total in bidding described as "spirited."

David Wheeler, an Oregon chiropractor, purchased a $3,375 sliver of the meteorite at the auction and returned it to the tribe.

"I have a lot of respect for the Native cultures," said Wheeler.

"This is really, really cool," said Merrill. "It kind of restores your thoughts humanity isn't so bad."

Pitt has declined invitations to respond to the Grand Ronde objections and outcome of the auction as of the time of publication.