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(NATIVE) AMERICAN HERO: Mizzou toxicologist returns stolen rare artifact to Northwest tribe

"An honorable man, indeed."

COLUMBIA, 1/1/12  (Beat Byte) --  It's a rare pleasure to witness one act of honor, but now I'm in the enviable position of being able to write about two -- from the same person. 

When a mutual friend without family locally passed away a few years ago, Paul Cary stepped in to tidy up his estate.  Paul handled money, family matters, and other issues with grace, honor, and aplomb. 

Now, the Yakima Herald-Republic has reported that Cary -- a Columbia resident and director of the Toxicology and Drug Monitoring Laboratory at University of Missouri Health Care -- spent several years assuring the return of a rare Native American artifact -- a stunning, one-of-a-kind handwoven basket stolen from a museum -- to the Yakama Tribe.  Comments below the story sum up the feelings of a grateful people. 

"Paul Cary is a very honorable man and deserves the honor of being a Lifetime Friend of the Yakama Nation," wrote GrizFoot Ball

"He is definitely a friend of this Yakama," wrote Connie Lee Stalcup.  "He is a very honorable man, indeed."

Cary's good deed started in the Pacific Northwest, traveled to Missouri, and returned to the Northwest, like the Lewis and Clark saga, "only in reverse," writes reporter Jane Gargas.  "It took four years, a circuitous route over at least three states and through many different hands before the episode could reach its end -- and home." 

It also started, coincidentally enough, with the Lewis and Clark National Bicentennial Exhibition.   Cary visited the show in 2004 and saw a Wasco root digging basket, "woven from hemp and bear grass in the late 19th century," in a glass case.   The Wasco tribe lived along the Columbia River near The Dalles, Ore.    Women used the baskets to hold roots they dug up for food. 

Cary, 61, told Gargas the basket "mesmerized" him, with "the fineness of the weaving, the intricacy of the design, the mysteriousness of the figural elements."  He also discovered how rare it was -- only about one percent of Native American baskets available for collecting are Wascos.  

A collector himself, Cary searched for a Wasco root-digging basket for three years, ultimately buying one in 2007 from a dealer in Western Washington he thinks was made between 1880-1910.  "It's beautiful," Cary told Gargas. "Wasco baskets are so unique, they leave an impression on you."

To learn more about the designs on his own basket, Cary emailed expert Mary Schlick, author of Columbia River Basketry: Gift of the Ancestors, Gift of the Earth.  

After checking out pictures of Cary's Wasco basket, Schlick was stunned.  She was sure she had seen it before, possibly at the Yakama Nation Museum in Toppenish, Wash. from a collection bequeated to the nation by 1930s Hollywood actor Nipo T. Strongheart, who was raised on the Yakama reservation. 

The Strongheart collection had only one, striking Wasco basket, and it looked just like Paul Cary's basket.   On further digging, Schlick confirmed her suspicions.  The basket had been stolen from the Yakama museum sometime in 2006

"It was like a stake went through my heart when I heard it might be stolen," Cary told the newspaper.  But he also realized that it "had to go back to where it belongs."   He returned the basket to the dealer with news of the theft and its rightful owner, got his money back, and expected his rare find would soon find its way back to the museum. 

But for reasons that are not clear, the dealer never returned the basket.  When Cary visited the museum last year, it wasn't there.  But he did see a sign that he considered -- a sign.  "Everyone has a purpose. Our responsibility is to fulfill our purpose."

Cary went back to the dealer, bought the basket back, and worked with museum curator Pam Fabela to return it.

In October, Cary flew to Washington from Missouri.  In a ceremony with experts and basket makers that included a traditional Waashat prayer, he restored the rare artifact to its people.  The Wasco basket now sits where it began its reverse Lewis and Clark trek:  in a glass museum case in Toppenish, Washington. 

"Regaining the basket and completing this journey -- I consider it a sacred purpose and my joy," Cary told the Yakama Nation. 

Tribal bag takes long, winding route home
by Jane Gargas
Yakima Herald-Republic


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