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The Hopi Nation Attempts to Stop Paris Sale of Sacred Artifacts

The Hopi People, a Native American nation residing in Arizona, have asked federal officials to assist them in stopping an auction of 70 sacred masks scheduled for this Friday, April 12, at the Neret-Minet auction house in Paris. The Hopi believe that the intricate masks and headdresses, which are adorned with horsehair, sheepskin, feathers, and maize, are inhabited by the spirits of warriors, animals, and natural elements, such as fire, rain, and clouds. The Hopi refer to these artifacts as Katsinam or “friends” and use them today in many ceremonies and harvest rituals, as they have done for thousands of years.

Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, believes that it is likely that the items were stolen. Historians say that many Hopi artifacts were taken long ago by people who found them unattended in shrines and on altars along the mesas of the Southwest. Missionaries attempting to convert the tribe also confiscated the objects in the late 19th century. Though some were sold by tribespeople, Hopi leaders contend that these were not legal sales, because they were made under duress and because individual members cannot hold title to religious artifacts, which are owned communally.

The auction is one of the largest of Hopi artifacts to date and the auction house estimates that the sale will bring in over $1 million. Many of the artifacts are more than 100 years old and are predicted to sell between $10,000 and $35,000. Neret Minet has stated that an unidentified collector legally bought the items in the United States at sales and auctions over 30 years, beginning in the 1930s. The auction house also reiterated that the auction complies with French law. The auction house director Gilles Neret Minet said that the “sale is not just a business transaction but a homage to the Hopi Indians.”

The sale is particularly offensive to the Hopi people because of its size and because of the religious significance of the items involved. The Hopi also point to a gross disparity between the United States government’s power in cases of attempted recovery of illicit artifacts. Though the State and Interior Departments state they can do little to stop the sale, the government is empowered to help a foreign country recover an object from the United States. Despite this, the Hopi stress, the government is unable to help retrieve an American artifact for sale overseas. In recent years, the Hopis have recovered dozens of artifacts from American museums and sought to block auctions in the United States. This is the first time their efforts have become international. The Hopi are circulating a petition imploring that the auction be stopped.

The battle over Native American artifacts has been a difficult issue for many years. Countless Native American artifacts and human remains have been taken from burial sites and reservations for hundreds of years. There remains an active trade in illicitly acquired Native American objects today. Although the government enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 to force museums and federal agencies to repatriate artifacts that rightfully belong to Native American groups, the process can take years and there is still an active trade in illicitly acquired artifacts. Additionally, the United States does not have international accords, as it does with Italy or Cambodia, which require that American officials take these cases.

The New York Times interviewed Kate Fitz Gibbon, an art law expert in New Mexico, who stated that the Hopis may want to consider a claim that the items should be considered stolen property. However, such efforts require considerable time and money. She said that the Hopis might have to “resort to publicity and moral suasion” in order to draw attention to the sale.

However, similar public pressures were recently applied by Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and Costa Rica to the Sotheby’s Paris auction of ancient pre-Columbian works two weeks ago. Although the profits were lower than predicted, the sale proceeded. It remains to be seen whether the Hopi will have better luck.

Source: The New York Times