Investigators probe threats to Marin Native American museum

Read full article from Marin IJ: Authorities are investigating two suspicious letters that were sent to the Marin Museum of the American Indian that contained the words “smallpox” and “anthrax” on the envelopes.

CALIFORNIA-Authorities are investigating two suspicious letters that were sent to the Marin Museum of the American Indian that contained the words “smallpox” and “anthrax” on the envelopes.

The Novato museum reported that the anonymous letters arrived after protesters toppled the Junipero Serra statue at Mission San Rafael Arcangel last month. The museum also received racist emails after the protest, according Doug Fryday, the museum’s president.

“I find no logical rationale for something like this to go on,” Fryday said. “It is just pure ignorance.”

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Novato Police Department are investigating the letters, which were postmarked on Oct. 23 from the state of New York.

“You’re not allowed to use the mail to threaten people,” said Jeff Fitch, a spokesman for the postal inspection office. “There are a number of statutes that cover mailing threats or saying there are things that could be harmful inside this letter. This is something we take seriously.”

The postal service’s sorting process includes passing letters through anthrax detection equipment. The letters would have been flagged had anthrax been detected, Fitch said.

Anthrax, a deadly bacteria, is most notorious for being used in the 2001 attacks in which anthrax-laced letters were sent to elected officials, news outlets and other recipents. Five people were killed and 17 others were sickened, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The sender of the Novato letters has not been identified, Fitch said.

Fryday said he found the letters in the museum’s post office box on Nov. 6 and said they were wrapped in clear packing tape. The fronts of the two envelopes were covered in seemingly incoherent statements written with various colored markers.

On one letter where the addressee and their address is normally written, the sender wrote, “Fouci, Peking Man and U.S.A.: Smallpox and Anthrax ‘projects’ Humans playing with diseases W.H.O.” The sender listed the ” Marin Miwok Museum” and the museum’s post office box.

Fouci appears to be a misspelled reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Peking man was the name given to fossils of an early human species, Homo erectus, found near Beijing in the 1920s. W.H.O. seemingly refers to the World Health Organization.

Where the return address is normally written, the sender wrote, “Cougar has some Questions, W.H.O.” and “And I sit in the still forest, Thick with fog, Awaiting Time, 1978 Cougar.”

Fryday said he opened one of the letters and saw a blank piece of binder paper inside. He took it to the Novato Police Department.

Novato police Lt. Christopher Jacob said investigators are working with the Postal Inspection Office to determine the level of threat.

“The cover of the letter was very odd and somewhat incoherent,” Jacob said. “We can’t really understand any message they’re trying to send with that.”

Fitch said anyone who finds suspicious mail should refrain from opening it and contact the postal inspection hotline at 1-877-876-2455.

The letter’s reference to smallpox and its dispatch to a Native American museum was racist and harmful given the deadly toll the disease took on Native Americans after the arrival of European colonists, Fryday said.

“It’s deadly stuff and the genocide runs very, very deep, and people’s fear of that runs very, very deep,” Fryday said.

The letters followed several emails written to the museum from a Marin resident that Fryday said contained racist characterizations of Native Americans. The emails also referenced the toppling of the Serra statue in San Rafael on Oct. 12 during an Indigenous Peoples Day demonstration.

Jacob said the police contacted the emails’ author, who agreed not to send any more emails to the museum. No criminal activity took place and no charges were filed against the email writer, Jacob said.

A small group of protesters painted and destroyed the church’s statue of Serra, the 18th-century Catholic priest who founded nine of California’s missions. The Marin County District Attorney’s Office announced Friday that it charged five people accused of tearing down the statue with felony vandalism.

The archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, performed an exorcism at the church a few days after the statue’s removal.

It is unclear when the statue will be restored or replaced. Maggie Gallagher, executive director of the Benedict XVI Institute in San Francisco, said the person in charge of restoring the statue was unavailable to provide an update on the project on Friday.

Native Americans have criticized the legacy of Serra, who was recently canonized by the Catholic Church, and the Spanish missionaries’ treatment of Indigenous people. Historians and Native Americans say missionaries used coercion or sometimes force to keep Indigenous people living and working at the missions, which also resulted in them having to give up their cultural practices. The concentration of people in the missions also led to the spread of deadly diseases that decimated the native populations.

In response to the emails and letters, Fryday said the museum board of directors plans to create public events that will facilitate community dialogue to address racism and reconciliation to the native peoples.

“I am in this to assist with having people come to understand all of this much better and stop this horrible negative stuff that is going on,” Fryday said. “We’re going to step up and do our part and educate. That’s what we can do.”

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