The Saint Louis Science Center and the Case of the Missing Eagle Feathers

The Saint Louis Science Center and the Case of the Missing Eagle Feathers
Kevin Airis shows off one of the two eagle-feather headdresses the Science Center returned to him in 2007.
On a winter's night late in 1973, a band of thugs broke into Thomas Airis' home in Wellston. When Thomas' grandson Kevin Airis arrived at the scene, he found the 82-year-old man lying in the middle of the floor badly beaten and surrounded by the wreckage of his prized collection of Native American artifacts. The beaded belts and Kachina dolls were covered with blood and urine.

"It was a horrifying scene," Kevin remembers now.

To Frank and Jewel Airis, Thomas' son and daughter-in-law and Kevin's parents, one thing was clear: The old man wasn't safe in his home anymore. Thomas, they decided, would come live with them in Affton. But there was the question of where they would keep his artifacts.

Thomas Airis (far right) and members of his dancing troupe.
courtesy Kevin Airis
Thomas Airis (far right) and members of his dancing troupe.
Jewel Airis wears one of her father-in-law's porcupine-quill hair roaches.
courtesy Kevin Airis
Jewel Airis wears one of her father-in-law's porcupine-quill hair roaches.

Starting in the 1930s, after the premature death of his wife, Thomas Airis spent his summers traveling throughout Oklahoma. He stayed on Indian reservations and made friends with the people who lived there. "He loved Indian culture," says Kevin.

During his years in Oklahoma, Thomas amassed a large collection of Indian crafts. Many he bought. But his friends also gave him gifts: a papoose carrier that had traveled the Trail of Tears, a collection of eagle-feather fans, four eagle-feather headdresses. It was these things that his family worried about.

These weren't just souvenirs like the cheap plywood tomahawks and bow-and-arrow sets you can find in Indian reservation gift shops across the country. These were priceless artifacts, especially the headdresses: In 1962, eagles were declared an endangered species, and it was forbidden by law to use their feathers for any purpose. A professional appraiser would later estimate the value of the entire collection at nearly $3 million.

Where would a treasure like this be safe? In a museum, of course, the Airises decided. They made a few inquiries and discovered that the St. Louis Museum of Science and Natural History was willing to accept their father's treasures on temporary loan.

"[Jewel] basically wanted everybody to see what Grandpa did, and she thought it would nice to put them on display for everybody to see," says Kevin Airis.

On March 7, 1974, Jewel Airis loaded up a friend's Chevy Nova with several boxes containing 47 items from her father-in-law's collection, including four headdresses, the papoose carrier, three beaded vests, several pairs of moccasins, a peace pipe carved from a rare stone called catlinite and the Colt revolver he'd carried on his trips through the West. The two women drove to the museum in Oak Knoll Park in Clayton and met with the curator, James Houser.

Houser gave Jewel Airis a handwritten receipt with a list of the 47 items and a note, which he signed, acknowledging that they were all on temporary loan. Jewel later told her son that she thought it was a little strange that she only met with Houser and no one else from the museum. But that night, she drove home to Affton, convinced her father-in-law's things were safe.

She would never see any of them again.

For the next three decades, the Airises assumed their artifacts were safe at the museum.

In 2006, Jewel Airis suffered a stroke that severely impaired her speech and memory. Sensing she didn't have much time left, she asked her son Kevin to call the museum and request the return of the family heirlooms.

The St. Louis Museum of Science and Natural History was, by now, quite different from the place where the Airises had taken their things in 1974. Technically, it no longer existed. In 1989, it had moved to Forest Park, renamed itself the Saint Louis Science Center and devoted itself to whiz-bang traveling exhibits and an IMAX theater that would make science "fun" for young visitors.

The transformation paid off: In 2008, the science center took in more than $15 million. But in the middle of all this, the old anthropology holdings, including the Airis collection, which had made a brief appearance in a 1975 exhibit about the Trail of Tears, had been consigned to storage.

When the staff of the museum's collections department checked their records at Kevin Airis' request, they discovered most of his grandfather's things were no longer there. What was worse, there was no sign that they had ever been there at all.

Melinda Frillman, the science center's collections manager, was initially sympathetic when Kevin and his son drove from their home in Hillsboro, about an hour south of the city, to meet with her. She had gone through the records kept by the former curator Houser, who had since retired, and had only been able to find eleven of the items.

"She told us [Houser] had kept such bad paperwork that he did not keep records of the donors, of the objects that were brought in, that it made her job a living hell, in her exact words," Kevin Airis says, recalling that first meeting. "That she had been working to try to do an inventory to try to straighten out his paperwork. That he was not respected at the museum. My son and I walked out of the building and went, 'Can you believe she would say that?'"

The records were, indeed, in poor condition. Three inventories had been taken of the museum's holdings since 1974. Two, from 1979 and 1989, were appraisals for insurance purposes. The third, from 2001, was for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which required all museums to identify their Native American pieces and notify the tribes, which might be interested in getting them back.

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