Columbia man returns rare Native American artifact to Washington state museum

Sunday, January 8, 2012 | 5:49 p.m. CST
This photo shows a Wasco root digging bag, which is a Native American historical artifact.

COLUMBIA — Paul Cary found himself in Toppenish, Wash., this past year because of a basket.

The coordinator of MU Toxicology discovered in 2008 that a rare Native American basket he had purchased for his personal collection was stolen from a museum of the Pacific Northwest Yakama tribe.

Cary brought the basket, called a Sally bag by the Native American women who once used it to collect roots, back to the Yakama Nation last October.

Returning the artifact to where it originally belonged was a complicated and long process. And the story of how Cary became interested in Yakama culture, and found the basket in the first place, goes back years. 

Cary’s fascination with the Yakama tribe started in March 2004, when he and his family traveled to the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis to see the Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition. He said he would never have thought this trip would change his life.

The exhibition, sponsored by the Missouri Historical Society, displayed, for the first time since 1806, more than 500 rare and priceless artifacts, artwork and documents collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the U.S. Army Corps of Discovery during their three-year journey to the Pacific. 

Cary paused in front of a 7-inch Wasco root digging basket. The basket, also called a Sally bag, was made out of wild hemp and bear grass. Native American women used the baskets to hold the roots they collected at the Columbia River every spring for the First Food Feast celebration in worship of the creator.  

Cary said he fell in love with this beautiful artifact.

"It was amazing," Cary said of this basket in an email. "I was nonetheless mesmerized by this basket. The fineness of the weaving, the intricacy of the designs, the mysteriousness of the figural elements all contributed to my fascination."

After his trip, Cary did some research on Wasco Sally bags. He found that the baskets are very rare and almost never for sale. It was the first time the idea of becoming a Sally bag collector occurred to him.

Three years later, in 2007, Carey was scanning auctions on eBay when he saw a Sally bag for sale.

But the auction ended, and Cary didn't win. Later, Carey learned from the seller that the basket wasn’t sold because the price had not been met. Cary eventually bought this basket from the seller and bought another Sally bag from a Washington dealer later that year.

Cary’s research on Wasco baskets had quickly led him to author Mary Schlick, who was connected to some of the Columbia River weavers who created Sally bags. He began to correspond with Schlick, author of "Columbia River Basketry: Gift of the Ancestors, Gift of the Earth."

When Schlick received photos of the Sally bag Cary bought, she was reminded of a similar basket she saw at the Native American basketry collection at Yakama Nation Museum in 1980 in Toppenish. The basket was among the collection of Nipo Strongheart, a 1930s Hollywood actor and adopted member of the Yakama Nation, who gave his collection to the tribe after his death in 1966. But this basket was stolen from the museum between March 2006 and April 2007.

"There are rarely two baskets made by these weavers that are alike," Schlick said.

Schlick was worried. She wasn’t sure whether she should tell Cary that his basket might have been stolen from the museum.

Schlick eventually informed Cary of the information and further investigated the authenticity of the basket.

Cary was heartbroken. But he contacted the Washington dealer and returned the basket for a full refund in February 2008. He also emailed Pam Fabela, curator of Yakama Nation Museum and told her about the current location of the basket.

However, over the next two and a half years, a stalemate developed between the dealer and the Yakama tribal police as they struggled to find a legal resolution. Cary maintained contact with both the dealer and Schlick to keep informed on the status of the negotiations.

In October 2010, Cary scheduled a trip to visit his brother in Portland, Ore., which was close to where Schlick lived. It was the first time Cary and Schlick met.

"The visit and the conversation further fueled my interest in ensuring the basket somehow got back to the museum," Cary said.

After the trip, Cary emailed the Washington dealer with an offer: Cary would cover half of his loss in exchange for the basket and a promise to attempt to recover the rest of his financial loss from the Yakama Nation. The dealer agreed.

Cary drove to Olympia, Wash., where the dealer lived, and recovered the basket. This past October he brought the basket to the Yakama Nation Museum.

Fabela said the Yakama Nation Museum and the tribal nation are truly grateful for Cary’s generosity. The basket is now on display in the museum.

"It was an unusual happening to have the opportunity to witness such an honorable act," Schlick said.

After the journey, Cary and Schlick drove to the Smohalla cemetery where Nipo Strongheart was buried.

"A grievous wrong was righted, a hurt healed, a purpose fulfilled," Cary said. "I think Nipo Strongheart would be pleased."

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Richard Saunders January 10, 2012 | 3:10 p.m.

The headline is incorrect. The the "Yakama Nation" is NOT "State of Washington." I realize that most ignore treaties (by design?), not even realizing the destruction of culture taking place (not to mention lives) by assuming that all have been assimilated by the state.

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Matthew Harnack January 12, 2012 | 7:28 p.m.

The reference to "Washington state" is merely a journalistic convention to differentiate Washington the State from Washington DC.

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