The last time the Willamette Meteorite was on display in Oregon, the Victrola was considered innovative technology.
In 1905, Elizabeth Dodge bought the 16-ton iron-nickel meteorite—the largest ever found in the U.S. and the sixth-largest in the world—for $26,000 from the Oregon Iron and Steel Company (declared the rightful owners because the meteorite had been found on company land in West Linn in 1902).
And in 1906, Dodge donated the artifact to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Now, more than 100 years later, state Rep. John Lim (R-Gresham) wants that meteorite back in Oregon. Lim is the sponsor of House Joint Resolution 30, which would "demand" that the museum return the meteorite to "its home, the State of Oregon."
"This will bring millions and millions of dollars to our state," says Lim, citing cultural and economic benefits. "It's also of religious value to the Grand Ronde people."
As if Lim's tourism guesstimates weren't questionable enough, his resolution with no force of law is also generating a good deal of concern from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
The tribes—which consider the meteorite a sacred artifact and call it "Tomanowos," or "Heavenly Visitor"—reached an agreement with the American Museum of Natural History in 2000. The agreement recognizes the tribes as the meteorite's rightful owner, requires the museum to mention the tribal relationship with the 32,000-pound rock as part of the permanent display, and obligates the exhibit to close down once a year to allow the Grand Ronde to perform a private ceremony with the meteorite.
"We're very, very happy with the agreement," says Justin Martin, a lobbyist representing the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. "We're not supportive of [the resolution] here in Oregon, and we're not supportive of it in terms of how it would affect our relationship with the museum."
The tribes, which donated more than $100,000 in the last election cycle to 60-plus legislative candidates, are not a voice to be ignored in Salem. When the resolution came to the House floor last Monday, a party-line vote of 30 (29 of them Democrats) to 24 (all Republicans) sent it back to committee.
Asked why a meteorite became a partisan issue, House Majority Leader Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone) said, "It was extremely bizarre. The tribes should have been consulted in the first place. They were not, but the House Republicans decided that they wanted to stand by the bill anyway."
"It's just a poorly thought-out resolution as it was drafted," Hunt says. "It's not an appropriate role for the Legislature to demand that a museum return a meteorite to Oregon without even consulting the owner of that meteorite."
Lim says he found the lack of support for his resolution somewhat unexpected. While he respects the 2000 agreement between the museum and the Grand Ronde tribes, he says, "That's their deal. Legally, they don't own the meteorite."
Martin sees things differently. Under the 2000 agreement, he says, the meteorite will be returned to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde if it is ever not on display at the American Museum of Natural History. But, he says, this is all pure speculation because "there's no teeth in a joint resolution." And Hunt says he doesn't expect the resolution to reach the House floor again now that the tribe has raised its opposition.