An Arizona tribe is asking a Paris auction house to cancel its upcoming sale of dozens of items central to the tribe's religious practices and return them to their original homes in the American Southwest.
Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou describes the collection on its website as katsina masks of the Hopi Indians of Arizona. They are scheduled to be auctioned April 12, with some expected to garner tens of thousands of dollars each.
To the Hopis, they are living beings called katsina friends that emerge from the earth and sky to connect people to the spiritual world and their ancestors. Every member of the Hopi Tribe gets initiated into the Katsina society as a rite of passage.
Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the tribe's cultural preservation office, said the religious items have no commercial value and should be in the hands of the American Indian tribes from which they were taken, including the pueblos of Jemez, Acoma and Zuni in New Mexico. The sale of such items isn't extraordinary, but the size of the collection to be auctioned in Paris and the age of the items is, he said.
The majority of the 70 katsina friends are labeled as Hopi and date back to the late 19th century and early 20th century. Kuwanwisiwma said they likely were collected from the Hopi in the 1930s and 1940s when there was documented evidence of a French citizen on the northern Arizona reservation.
"A lot of these objects were collected under suspicious conditions," he said. "You had such a huge competition by museums to collect artifacts from tribal reservations, and Hopi was no exception."
Acoma Pueblo said Wednesday that it would look into whether a piece labeled as originating from Acoma is authentic and would support any efforts to repatriate American Indian artifacts.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act gives federally recognized American Indian tribes a way to reclaim funerary objects and ceremonial items from federal agencies and museums in the United States. Sherry Hutt, the program manager for the national NAGPRA office under the U.S. Department of the Interior said the law doesn't always apply to items held internationally.
"Did it leave at the time by gift or was it removed without permission? What were the rules at the time?" she said. "Once you know that, you may or may not have an application of NAGPRA, you may or may not have statues that apply to cultural resources or other remedies, generally."
An email sent to Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou on Tuesday was not returned, and the auction house declined immediate comment when contacted by a reporter on Wednesday. The press release announcing the auction said the items were collected by a "connoisseur with peerless taste," who had lived in the United States for more than 30 years and had attended katsina dances at the Hopi villages but doesn't say how.
Jose Viarreal, editor of the website artdaily.org, published the news release and said he received calls afterward from Hopis furious about the sale. He said he contacted the auction house and was told the items were obtained legally.
"I think this is going to go through as planned," he said.
Kuwanwisiwma said no Hopi has authority to sell or transfer such items because they are considered cultural patrimony, and no one other than a Hopi tribal member should possess them. Things haven't always worked out that way.
The Heard Museum in Phoenix is backing the Hopi Tribe's effort to recover the items and said it was hopeful the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People could be used as leverage. France was among the first to sign the declaration that says indigenous people have the right to repatriation of their human remains, ceremonial objects and cultural patrimony.
The auction house cited a book written by the founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona in its description of the katsinas, which Hopi artists commonly depict in carved, wooden figures and sell. The museum's director, Robert Breunig, appealed to the sense of decency and humanity in asking that the auction be called off.
"To be displayed disembodied in your catalog and on the Internet is sacrilegious and offensive," he wrote in a letter to the auction house. "If one claims to value these katsina friends as 'works of art,' one must also respect the people who made them and the native traditions that govern their use."
If returned, Kuwanwisiwma said the items will be placed in the care of the head katsina priest. The tribe would not bid on the objects otherwise, he said.
"Culturally we made it clear that there's no price tag on our ceremonial and religious objects," he said. "That's pretty much out of the question."
Associated Press Writer Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.