A small piece of Oregon’s most storied rock added a chapter to its history Friday when the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville returned it to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
The meteorite Tomanowos, also referred to as the Willamette Meteorite, formed about 4.5 billion years ago, at the start of the solar system. For an unknown amount of time it sped around the sun before falling to Earth. Thirteen thousand years ago, glacial floods carried it to the Willamette Valley, near the city of West Linn.
A little over a hundred years ago, it was donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and a few small chunks were sliced off and sold.
And on Friday, a 4.5 ounce piece of the sacred meteorite finally returned home.
Cheryle A. Kennedy, Grand Ronde tribal chairwoman, says she felt overwhelmed by the event. “The representation of a piece of the meteorite being brought back to the people is also representative to us that healing is occurring with us. That all the parts are being returned, and we as a people can come home as well.”
Tomanowos is over 30,000 lbs, making it the largest meteorite found in North America and the sixth-largest in the world. Comprised of iron and nickel, scientists think it may have formed when a long-gone planet shattered. Because of its large size and distinctive shape, it’s become one of the best-known meteorites in the world.
But long before Tomanowos was donated to the American Museum of Natural History, it had achieved culturally importance to the Clackamus people of the Willamette Valley, whose descendants are members of the tribes of the Grand Ronde. The Clackamus knew that Tomanowos came from the sky, and used the water that gathered in its divots and basins for cleansing and healing.
In 1999, the tribes attempted to regain the meteorite under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. In the end, an agreement was reached with the American Natural History Museum, which recognizes the cultural significance of the meteorite to the Grand Ronde people, allows them to conduct ceremonies at Tomanowos, and says that if it ever goes off display, it will be returned to the tribes.
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde make a yearly visit to Tomanowos, where they hold a private ceremony at the museum. “We express our appreciation from the standpoint that they are keeping something which is very sacred to us,” says Kennedy.
The museum’s interim executive director indicated in a prepared statement that the meteorite’s sacred nature for the Grand Ronde was an important factor in the decision to return it.
“It is a great honor for the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum to return this culturally significant artifact to the Grand Ronde Tribe, so they may share it with generations to come,” Interim Executive Director John Rasmussen said.
This is the second piece of the meteorite to be donated to the Grand Ronde, and there are thought to be over a hundred of pieces of the meteorite owned by private collectors across the country. Kennedy hopes there will be more returned.
“I think that when folks hear the story, they will come forward and donate their pieces back,” Kennedy says. “Recognizing that as all of the meteorite is returned, it helps make a people whole.”
This piece, along with the second, will be on display at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center as part of an exhibit called “Witness.” It opens in late spring 2019.