Native Americans Protest Sale of Artifacts

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May 30, 2016; Global Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and NPR, “The Two-Way”

A Paris auction house recently continued with an auction of Native American artifacts despite protests from several Native American tribes in the United States. The Eve Auction House sold a collection of over 300 sacred artifacts, which included a ceremonial war shield, masks, a shrunken head, a warrior jacket adorned with human scalps, ancient jewelry, and ceremonial stones. Most of the collection is traced back to Native American Indian tribes, including the Acoma Pueblo and the Hopi. The same Paris auction house held a similar auction in 2013, which was also protested by Native American leaders.

Native American Leaders from the Pueblo and Hopi tribes met with U.S. State Department officials and representatives from the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian in Washington D.C. ahead of the auction to voice their concerns about the sale of these items that the tribes consider so precious.

The issue has been a diplomatic one for several years, as U.S. laws prohibiting commercial sale of Native American artifacts do not apply in France. The federal laws themselves are not comprehensive, as they do not apply to private dealers, but only prohibit what institutions that are federally funded can acquire or display, as reported by the Hopi tribal newspaper, The Hopi Tutuveni. The Hopi sued unsuccessfully in 2014 to block the sale of the tribe’s religious objects, and has been very vocal about stopping these auctions from continuing.

U.S. Representative Steve Pearce (R-NM) has proposed a congressional resolution urging federal agencies to seek the items’ return, and is also calling for a study to look at how often these kinds of cultural items fall into the hands of traffickers on the black market. The tribes do have the support of the U.S. government, with Mark Taplin of the State Department telling NPR: “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.

Perhaps auction houses would not be so unwavering in the sale of these items if they did not fetch such high prices. The Guardian reports that 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. As such, many of these items have high value. The Hopi Tutuveni reported that in April 2013, the Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house in Paris generated $1.2 million as 70 Hopi religious objects went for an average of $17,143, with one object created around 1880 fetching $209,000. In Monday’s protested sale, Yahoo News reported that twelve sacred Kachina masks went under the hammer for 116,000 euros ($129,000)—with the most precious, the Crow Mother, going for 38,000 euros ($42,300)—about a third less than expected, but still a high value.

The tribes contend that many of these items were pilfered and taken from them illegally. “Over the years, we’ve searched high and low for objects that are part of our community,” Bradley Marshall, of the Hoopa Valley tribal council of California, told a press conference. “When these objects have been created for ceremonies within our community, a spirit goes into them. When we create the objects, we’re in prayer, we’re breathing life into the object. And so these are not just mere objects in some fancy collection. These objects are living beings to us. These objects are part of our family; these objects are part of who we are as a people; these objects have a sacred purpose within our community.”

The Eve Auction House did remove one item from the auction. The removed object, which is claimed by the Pueblo, who live in the southwestern United States primarily in the present-day states of New Mexico and Arizona, was a large disc with a colored face in pigment adorned in bird feathers, predicted to fetch up to 7,000 euros ($7,800). The Pueblo Indians’ U.S. Embassy spokesman, Phil Frayne, called it a “small victory in a larger battle” to repatriate tribal artifacts to their original homes, and told the Associated Press that the U.S. government believes the 19th-century shield might have been taken illegally in the 1970s, and as such was withdrawn by Drouot just before the auction.

Perhaps all the media coverage has helped, with even social media furthering their cause, with #StoptheParisAuction trending on Twitter. In spite of the auction going forward, Native American tribes and the U.S. government continue to urge the French government to stop allowing these auctions to continue. As Kurt Riley, governor of the Acoma Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, said, “We are appealing to the people of France, and to the French authorities, to honor our humanity and the value of our ancient traditional beliefs by stopping this sale and returning this item.”

The French government maintains that they are sensitive to the tribes and are aware of the significance of the artifacts, with spokesperson for the French Embassy in the U.S., Emmanuelle Lachaussee, telling the Guardian, “We are still in the process of investigating the case. But I can already tell you that the French authorities are mindful of the importance that representatives of Native American tribes attribute to the protection of their cultural heritage, and are giving the most serious consideration to this case.”

Hopefully, the French will continue to consider whether it is worth it to keep selling away this history that is so much a part of Native American culture.—Alexis Buchanan