By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
The two insurance inventories consist of nothing more than lists of items and their approximate value. The NAGPRA register is slightly more descriptive, containing the dates when the objects were made and the names of some — but not many — donors.
Frillman attempted to follow the paper trail for the Airis collection. The eleven items she had managed to find had been referenced in a letter Houser had sent to Jewel Airis in 1983. He'd asked her permission to add them to the museum's permanent collection. These included two headdresses, the peace pipe, the pistol, a pair of Spanish stirrups, a powder horn and a hair roach made of porcupine quills.
Jewel had never signed the letter that would transfer ownership.
"She said that it was never a donation, and she was not signing it and sending it back," Kevin explains.
Houser, now 79, remembers the whole scenario much differently. "I've racked my brains trying to remember the details," he says via telephone from his home in Chesterfield.
"[Jewel] came in several months after the loan and asked for the return of the collection," he claims. "So I returned it to her. She said there were some things she wanted to give us, about a dozen items, the two war bonnets, the rattler, the beaded moccasins. I asked her to sign the gift form. She couldn't do that, I think because Mr. Airis was still alive. I never heard from her again. A few years later I got a new registrar who tried to send her the form but was unable to reach her.
"I was angry at the time," Houser continues. "I thought they were using us as a storage place. After that, I rewrote the rules of the department so we couldn't accept things unless we had a good reason."
But since there were no records proving that Houser had returned the artifacts, and since the Airises were so insistent that they'd never gotten anything back, Frillman promised she would look through the museum's collections for the missing items, using old photographs of Thomas as a guide.
In January of 2007, the science center returned eleven pieces to the Airis family. Kevin Airis quickly realized the pipe was not the one that had belonged to his grandfather.
"They gave me back the wrong pipe!" he says incredulously. After looking at photos, Frillman agreed the museum had made a mistake and promised to look for the right one.
Kevin has a clear memory of his grandfather's artifacts and can offer vivid descriptions of many of them. He was sure, with the aid of the photographs, he would be able to find the rest, if they were indeed still in the science center. He asked permission to visit the museum's storage facilities and hunt for the missing 36 items himself, but Frillman told him no.
Jewel Airis believed there had been some misunderstanding. By now, she was too sick to visit the science center in person. She asked her son to call the museum to explain the family's situation to the director, Doug King, and invite him down to Hillsboro to meet with her.
"We sent him pictures of Mom with an oxygen tube in her nose," Kevin recalls. "Every day she waited. She was so excited Doug King was coming to see her. He would not talk to her."
Jewel Airis died February 14. "She was on her deathbed," says Kevin. "She lay there for twelve hours and didn't say a word. Then she rolled over and said, 'You make the museum accountable to me.' Then she rolled over and died."
"She felt she did Grandpa wrong," adds Kevin's wife, Theresa. "She thought his things were safe."
The Airises blame everything that happened next on King's refusal to visit Jewel.
"She would've patted his face and told him everything was OK," Kevin says. But instead, because he didn't come, her son was left with a deathbed mandate.
Kevin Airis is a soft-spoken man with wispy dark hair that's turning gray. For many years, he owned a tool-and-die business. Now he's retired. He and Theresa live in a small house on a gravel road just outside Hillsboro. She is the more outspoken of the two. When Kevin tells the story of Doug King, the science center and his grandfather's missing artifacts, he's careful to pull papers and photos out of an old leather briefcase as supporting evidence.
"Grandpa could chant like an Indian, like praying, for hours," Kevin says. "He had a rough voice. He sounded like an Indian." He shows off a photo from the 1950s. Thomas is wearing one of his feathered headdresses, a patterned breechclout, or loincloth; leather cuffs and a leather vest covered with an intricately beaded pattern of roses. His cheeks are painted with streaks of white. His arms are crossed, and he looks directly into the camera.
"He had the dances and chants down," Kevin continues. Thomas' Native American friends let him participate in ceremonies that no white men are supposed to see, like the Sunshine Dance, which commemorates a massacre by U.S. government soldiers. They taught him to handle snakes. At an intertribal meeting in Arizona in 1955, they made him an honorary chief. He didn't represent any particular tribe, but he sat with the other chiefs and smoked a peace pipe carved from catlinite, an exceedingly rare stone that lies beneath thick layers of quartz and can only be hand-mined by Native Americans. Then the chiefs broke the pipe into three pieces so it could never be smoked again. (This was the pipe Jewel delivered to the museum in 1974.)