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Native Americans Protest A Planned Auction Of Sacred Objects In France

U.S. officials and members of Native American Nations attend an "emergency meeting" at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. They were gathered to object to a Paris auction house's upcoming sale of objects sacred to Native Americans.
Andrew Harnik
U.S. officials and members of Native American Nations attend an "emergency meeting" at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. They were gathered to object to a Paris auction house's upcoming sale of objects sacred to Native Americans.

Native American leaders and a U.S. State Department official are urging a French auction house to call off a sale of sacred art and artifacts.

The auction is scheduled for next Monday, at the Eve auction house in Paris. Items for sale include a war shirt from a Plains Indian tribe, possibly Lakota, featuring hair from human scalps, as well as an Acoma Pueblo war shield.

The auction also includes numerous ceremonial objects with religious significance to the Hopi tribe. The items in question are so sacred to the Hopi that members of the tribe object to having them photographed or even described, as KJZZ reporter Laurel Morales explained for our Code Switch blog in 2013.

Back then, the items — which the Hopi call "Katsina friends" — were in the news for the same reason they're popping up now: A French auction house was planning to sell them.

Then, and now, the Hopi consider such a sale a profound act of sacrilege.

In the U.S., it's illegal to sell ceremonial Native American items. But France is not bound by U.S. laws on the matter, as The Guardian reports. It's a point of diplomatic friction between the two allies.

At an "emergency meeting" called Tuesday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., tribal officials, the State Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico gathered to discuss the pending auction.

The Associated Press reports that the governor of Acoma Pueblo, the tribe whose war shield is up for auction, has reached out to Secretary of State John Kerry and asked him to intervene with French authorities. The wire service continues:

"[Kurt] Riley made an emotional appeal at Tuesday's meeting, seeking the return of the Acoma Pueblo ceremonial shield to the centuries-old village in New Mexico. Tribal leaders said it was illegally taken from the community atop a mesa southwest of Albuquerque, and that by pueblo law, it is a sacred item that should never have been removed.

"Through tears, he said seeing cultural items go up for sale has caused the pueblo emotional harm.

" 'How it left the pueblo, we don't know. However its mere existence outside the pueblo tells us an event occurred in violation of Acoma law,' Riley said. 'A black market for these cultural items has emerged in the United States.' "

At Tuesday's meeting, Bradley Marshall and Leilani Pole of the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council described the history of their tribe's devastation by U.S. laws, and the pilfering of their sacred items "by the wagonloads," headed to museums and collectors against the tribe's will.

"Over the years, we've searched high and low for objects that are part of our community," Marshall said. "When we create [ceremonial] objects, we're in prayer. We're breathing life into the object. And so these objects are not just a mere object in some fancy collection, these objects are living beings to us. These objects are a part of our family ... these objects have a sacred purpose in our community."

An object from the Hoopa tribe is set to be auctioned on Monday; the auction house estimates it is worth thousands of euros.

"We hope one day this member of our community can return to us," Marshall said.

The U.S. government sides with the tribes. Mark Taplin of the Department of State said: "In the absence of clear documentation and the consent of the tribes themselves, these objects shouldn't be sold. This type of commercialization of Native American cultural property is fundamentally wrong."

The French auction also is to include jewelry from the ancient Hohokam tribe and artifacts from Asia, Africa and elsewhere in the Americas.

Indigenous cultural items can be big money in France, the Guardian explains:

"France has a long history, tied to its colonial past in Africa, of collecting and selling tribal artifacts. The Paris-based 'Indianist' movement in the 1960s celebrated indigenous cultures, and interest in tribal art in Paris was revived in the early 2000s following the highly lucrative sales in Paris of tribal art owned by late collectors André Breton and Robert Lebel."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.

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