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.
Kevin Airis shows off one of the two eagle-feather headdresses the Science Center returned to him in 2007. Jennifer Silverberg

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

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.

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.

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.)

Another photo from the '50s shows Thomas standing in front of the counter of the Mohonk Lodge Trading Post in Clinton, Oklahoma, flanked by its two owners, Napoleon Bonaparte Moore and Nellie Stevens. He looks so much at home, an impartial observer might think he owned the place, too.

Founded in 1895 by members of the Dutch Reformed Church who had migrated east from upstate New York (hence the name Mohonk, later changed to Mohawk), the trading post was one of the first places in the country where Plains Indians, mostly Arapaho, Cheyenne and Creek, could sell their traditional leather- and beadwork to visitors. Thomas lived in the lodge's beading house and bought most of the items in his collection there.

When he came back to St. Louis in the winters, he would take his treasures around to local schools and let the kids try the headdresses on. He taught the dances to Boy Scouts, and they performed around the St. Louis area. Kevin Airis, who was born in 1955, remembers attending these powwows with his parents. At the time, he was so small, he could fit in the papoose carrier.

The dancers wore Thomas' beaded cummerbunds, moccasins, cuffs and breechclouts. But only Thomas was allowed to wear the headdresses and the rose-patterned leather vest.

Jewel Airis shared her father-in-law's love of Native American culture. She was a member of his dance troupe and performed in a beaded canvas dress he'd brought her from Oklahoma. She'd always been self-conscious about her background, Kevin says. "She was adopted. She never knew her father. Grandpa accepted her. He was like a father to her. They were inseparable."

When Thomas died, Jewel appointed herself guardian of his artifacts. "She saved everything," says Kevin. "She filled the basement and garage with boxes." All those things had to be left behind when Jewel went to live with Kevin and Theresa after her stroke; there wasn't enough room at their house to store it all.

A few weeks after Jewel died, Doug King, the science center director, finally visited the Airises in Hillsboro and repeated what James Houser had told Melinda Frillman: that the science center had already returned the missing 36 items.

"He came here and told Kevin his mom was a liar," says Theresa. "After she died, he finally came. He asked what it would take to make this go away. We laughed and said, 'We want our stuff back.'"

"I think he came down here to see what kind of house I lived in," Kevin adds, "to see what he was dealing with."

On March 7, Kevin Airis hand delivered a letter to King at the science center demanding the return of his grandfather's collection within 48 hours. "I thought the letter would make Doug King take me seriously," he says. King assured the Airises that he had contacted the FBI and was launching an investigation into the missing items.

"At one point," Kevin adds, "Doug King said he would cut a check. Then he went on vacation, and we never heard from him."

Two weeks later, after Frillman conducted an extended search through the museum's entire Native American and ethnographic collections, the science center finally found Thomas' catlinite pipe. Frillman said it had been misfiled by a volunteer and sent a museum staffer to return it to Kevin.

The rest of the items — the beaded vests, the headdresses, the peyote fans — remained missing.

The FBI uncovered no evidence that anyone had stolen Thomas Airis' things or tried to sell them. As far as King and his staff were concerned Houser had returned 36 items to Jewel in 1974, even if there was no supporting paperwork. Kevin had just taken back the remaining eleven. The case was closed.

The Airises, naturally, did not agree. "Why would they keep the pistol, two headdresses and hair roaches and not the beaded items, which have much more cultural and heritage value?" Kevin asks.

He hired Gwen Yeaman, an accredited appraiser from Zionsville, Indiana, to examine photos of the missing objects and calculate their replacement value. Yeaman has taught courses on Native American culture and religion at Butler University, served as a consultant for PBS and the History Channel, and done considerable beadwork herself.

Yeaman's estimation of the value of the objects was, of course, hypothetical, but she based her calculations on comparable pieces that had been sold at auction. In the case of Thomas' beaded vest, she determined that the rose design was complex enough that each bead needed to be sewn on individually, which, judging from her own experience, would probably require 300 hours of work. The leather of the vest itself, in order to support so much beading, would have to have been brain-tanned, a process far more disgusting and time-consuming than chemical tanning. Leather made this way is, consequently, rarer and more expensive.

Taking into account that the Mohonk Lodge, the likely source of the vest, had a reputation for selling museum-quality work and considering the auction prices of other vests she considered of lower quality, Yeaman appraised the vest at $8,000.

In the end, Yeaman estimated that the total value of the missing objects, except for the ones made of eagle feathers, was $143,850. The eagle-feathered items were, of course, irreplaceable, but Yeaman believed the four peyote fans were worth $1 million and the two headdresses $1.2 million apiece. (A similar floor-length headdress that had once been worn by Geronimo in a Wild West show had recently sold for that price.)

Yeaman finished her appraisal in early 2008 and sent Kevin two thick books filled with pictures and historical background. By then, Kevin decided he needed to take further action. "I could not get any responses from the science center," he says. "Doug King would not involve me in the investigation. I finally filed a lawsuit."

Kevin Airis sued the science center in May of 2008. He demanded $5 million: "Interest on the objects, the actual value of the objects, the loss of the objects."

In the early days of the lawsuit, during the discovery process, the Airises requested and received a CD of documents from the science center. It contained the insurance appraisals from 1979 and 1989, the NAGPRA inventory from 2001 and, most interestingly, a series of internal communications between museum employees. Although the museum had been legally required to turn over the documents, the Airises were still stunned to realize that King and his staff had given them information that could be damaging to their own case.

"They tried to bog us down in paperwork," Theresa says. "They were so arrogant, they didn't realize they were giving us evidence."

Among the items on the CD was an e-mail Frillman wrote in January 2007, shortly after the Airises had first contacted her about the missing items.

In the e-mail, Frillman explained the situation to Tom Jaskiewicz, the science center's CFO. "The only problem I can foresee is that when we do notify Mr. Airis that we were only able to locate a small portion of the objects, he might be upset and it could cause some PR problems," she wrote. "[B]ut after speaking with him I think he will be grateful to get anything back."

The Airises were outraged. They considered this evidence that the science center had never intended to take them seriously. "We just wanted our things back," Kevin says simply.

They examined the inventory lists and discovered they were indeed as shoddy as Frillman had claimed. They also learned that the science center had done its own appraisal of the missing objects the previous year, after Frillman had conducted her search and been unable to find anything.

Like Yeaman, the two appraisers, Ben Thompson and Jim Duncan, had based their estimates on photographs. But they came to a very different conclusion.

"[We] determined the items were not of historical significance since they were purchased mostly from roadside museums," Thompson and Duncan wrote in a signed one-page statement. "The items were collected in the '40s, '50s and '60s, and these objects were in marginal condition based on age and the fact they were used repeatedly in Boy Scout shows."

Thomas Airis' beaded vest, they concluded, was worth $800. Yeaman had calculated its value at $8,000. Kevin and Theresa were offended.

"Gwen is one of the top six Native American appraisers in the country," Theresa protests.

But the linchpin of the Airises' case, they felt, was a letter Houser had written to King early in 2001, which they also found during discovery:

I have been told by some of the collection workers that on returning from the Christmas holidays they saw in the lounge area a large trash receptacle filled and overflowing with files and loose papers, Houser wrote. They said they did not examine the files, so I can only guess at what those files were. I suspect, however, that they may have been collection files.

If this is true I find it very disturbing that someone took it upon themselves to determine that these files were useless and so consigned them to the trash bin. Anyone with only remedial training in collections management should know that files and papers relating to collections are as important as the objects in the collections.

Houser confirmed in a phone interview that he believes the Airis files were among those that had been thrown away, including a copy of the invoice that he says he gave Jewel Airis when she came to retrieve Thomas' things back in 1974.

"They can't prove us wrong if they have no files," Kevin says triumphantly. "We were bullied."

Unfortunately for the Airises, the science center had other weapons at its disposal.

As one of the science center's lawyers, Christopher Blanton, explained in a letter to their attorney, the law in Missouri holds that a museum cannot be sued for loss of property more than two years from the date the museum notified the lender of the loss.

Since Houser claimed he had returned the Airises' property in 1974, as far as the museum was concerned, there had been no loss and no need to notify the family.

But even if there were a loss, the museum had time on its side. Since the Airises' items don't appear on the 1979 insurance appraisal, Blanton concluded, "the loss, if there was one, occurred prior to 1980. Thus, it is the position of [the science center] that the applicable statute of limitations has run."

Why did Jewel Airis wait so long to ask the museum to return her father-in-law's things? "Mom was busy taking care of Dad," Kevin explains. "She volunteered at the hospital. She thought my brother and I would fight over it. She said there was no limit to how long we could keep something in a museum." Her husband finally died in 1991, and her older son passed away in 2006.

During his seven-and-a-half-hour deposition, Kevin said his mother had always planned to get the things back eventually.

"For the last 30 years, I would always give my mother crap about it, and she would always say we will get it back one day, we will get it back one day.... She did tell me that the items would be returned back to the family on her deathbed."

Kevin believes his mother never actually wanted to see the things again. "She told me they were safe in the museum," he says. "The memories they brought back were too painful. Looking at the stuff was like looking at Grandpa."

The trial Kevin Airis had anticipated for nearly two years never materialized. Instead, on April 10, Circuit Judge Edward Sweeney issued summary judgment in favor of the science center.

"Repeated inventories taken over a period from 1979 to 2001 failed to include the artifacts in question. Nothing in the record indicates that at any time after 1979, the [science center] knew where the artifacts were or how they could have been recovered."

The science center, Sweeney reasoned, couldn't return anything it didn't have. And if the items had been stolen, the science center could not be held responsible. Finally, Sweeney concluded, the science center's lawyers were correct: The statue of limitations had expired.

The Airises plans to appeal the ruling. The science center, says Jay Levitch, one of its attorneys, "is going to fight the appeal vigorously. Long before there was any dispute," he continues, "the science center was going about its normal tasks, doing what a museum does. None of the items showed up in any inventory. For Mr. Airis to suggest that we have them and are hiding them — the facts don't support it."

Doug King, Melinda Frillman and other staff members of the science center declined to speak to Riverfront Times for legal reasons. Kevin Kasper, the Airises' lawyer, did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.

Once the court battles are over, Kevin Airis plans to file a complaint with the American Association of Museums. The association has issued a series of guidelines for museums to follow when organizing their collections, including careful documentation of every item and the establishment of security measures to make sure nothing is damaged or lost. The science center's inventory lists might not qualify as "careful documentation."

If the association finds the science center has violated any of the guidelines, it could lose its accreditation.

"Our accreditation status isn't public like a hospital," admits Julie Hart, the American Association of Museums' senior director. "But it means something to the field. Loss of accreditation could affect the ease and facility of getting loans from peer institutions. And people understand the institution did something wrong. It happens very rarely."

The fight for the missing artifacts has taken its toll on Kevin and Theresa. The appraisal and legal costs have run to nearly $50,000 so far. Theresa's uncle, Ray Ackermann, is helping to pay the bills.

"My wife passed away five years ago," Ackermann says. "Theresa has been like a daughter to us. We're very close, that's why I'm helping. It's a loan. They're going to pay me back. But money doesn't mean that much to me anyway. It's friendship."

Shortly after his mother's death, Kevin suffered a heart attack and had to shut down his business. Now, like his grandfather, he tours nearby schools and shows the kids the Kachina dolls and his eagle talon and lets them try on the feathered headdresses and porcupine hair roaches. He keeps the thank-you notes they send him in the leather briefcase that holds the rest of his legal paperwork.

"I'll never sell any of the Indian stuff I got," he says.

"We really looked forward to taking Jewelie back to the reservation with her stuff," Theresa adds.

The Airises plan to keep fighting till the bitter end.

"Most people wouldn't be able to fight this," Kevin says. "But because of what Mom said on her deathbed...she didn't criticize me. But those was something she wanted done. I don't have any choice but to finish this."

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.