Bo Lomahquahu outside the Drouot Auction House on April 12.

courtesy Survival International

Bo Lomahquahu outside the Drouot Auction House on April 12.

Bo Lomahquahu, the Native Student Who Spoke Up at the Katsinam Auction in Paris

When 25-year-old student Bo Lomahquahu, Hopi and Navajo, arrived in Paris in January, he never imagined that he would become a spokesman for his people in an international art incident.

Yet when 70 katsinam—sacred items commonly called "masks" but known as "friends" to the Hopi—were put up for auction by the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house, Lomahquahu found he couldn't keep silent. Quite literally—he was thrown out of the April 12 auction after voicing the feelings of many Hopi to the auctioneers and those gathered in the room to bid on the items:

"How can you put a price on our religion?" he said—and was then escorted out by security.

Raised in Arizona, the son of a Navajo mother and a Hopi father, the latter a carver of kachinas, Lomahquahu is a young man of varied interests, whose stay in Paris is one chapter in a story that he hopes will include service in the Peace Corps and a career in design. He took a moment to share his thoughts on the sadness and powerlessness he felt as the katsinam were sold off, one by one, to non-Native collectors.

Where are you from, and which tribe do you belong to?

I was born in Ganado, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation, and raised in Holbrook, Arizona,  a small town one hour from the Hopi reservation. I studied retailing, consumer sciences, business administration and French, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and applied for this exchange program, to come to France. My father, Alfred Bo Lomahquahu, Hopi from Paaquavi, on the third mesa, belongs to the Greasewood Clan. My mother, Julia James, from the Navajo reservation Klagetoh, Arizona, belongs to the Bitter Water Clan. So by birth, I am considered more Navajo than Hopi. But I feel more Hopi than Navajo, as I do not know anything about the Navajo culture, since my mother does not practice. Meanwhile, my father practices Hopi religion.

Is that how you acquired a knowledge of the Hopi katsinam?

Yes, from my father, who grew up on the rez. After  he left the Marines, he started to sculpt kachinas, so I grew up with it, watching him carving, asking questions. My father has done it for thirty years now, having learned from his father. Kachinas are made by initiated persons, to give away to girls during kachina dances; but he does it as an art form.

How did you feel about the sale of the masks, and what made you decide to make a statement during the auction?

I felt very sad, helpless; as there was no other Native person there. I felt nobody else understood what was going on. I was nervous, angry. And angrier when I was inside the room, as it hit me—they were not just pictures or images on a screen. When I saw that mask sold, leaving in a bag, I could not stand it! Watching them in the room, and having seen them in the reservation. … And people playing with them, as here they do not have the same significance.

So, standing in that room packed with people, reminded me of being in the kiva; and that feeling brought back memories, which made me angry. I was very nervous, and it took a lot from me to speak up, though I had prepared this sentence: how can you put a price on our religion?

And then right after I said it, it was like everything stopped… The security grabbed my arm, and pushed me out of the auction, and walked me to the front door.

So I was in the room for only thirty minutes, and was ejected right after Crow Mother was sold.

Were you frustrated?

No, when I left I was emotionally drained, and did not want to be there anymore.

What efforts should be undertaken now regarding the auctions of Native items?

The Hopi should work with other tribes to set up legislation that could stop the auctions. They should work on lobbying, and set up laws that obligate people to return objects taken outside the country. Hopefully, as this story gets more media attention, it will happen. Other tribes, like the Lakota and eastern tribes, would like to get back their sacred items.

What is your Hopi background?

I was initiated at fourteen, to take part in the kachina dances and carve them. In the Hopi culture, initiation is when you become a man and are given the knowledge that you carry on for the next generation. And this is the problem with the pictures of the masks: Non-initiated people are not supposed to see them.

How did you feel about that moment of your life, what new insight did your initiation bring you?

I was very excited. I did not feel excluded any more. When you're growing up, they hide things from you—and I wanted to be part of that culture. I felt more Hopi after my initiation. I could ask my father questions  that I could not before, as he would not talk to me about secret things.

So, do you think that your generation has a responsibility to defend its culture?

Definitely! And going to the initiation is when we are told that. Otherwise, our culture will die.

Was it this sense of responsibility that made you speak during the auction?

Yes, and also feeling that something personal was stolen from me—all those emotions made me speak. And the memory of my grandparents, to whom I was very close. What would they have said?  It gave me the strength to talk. My great-grandfather Percy was a medicine man, and he wanted to share our culture with other people—but something like this was too much sharing.

So, you ended up out front, giving interviews, after security removed you from the auction?

Yes. And it is weird, as I never expected it, and I do not wish to say the wrong things, as I think the older people should speak. But I grew up outside of the reservation, and went to boarding school at 13 in New Hampshire, and then to college. So I am used to being in this position of having to explain my culture. And that has made me appreciate it—I see how unique it is.

I am fortunate to be American. And I know it's a great thing to be Hopi and Navajo.

When you spoke to the media about the auction, you compared this sale of Native art to selling art looted by Nazis in World War II—why?  Do you know Jewish culture?

Well, I saw it that way, having learnt about Jewish culture from my mother. And thinking about how the kachinas are alive, and we should never sell them. They are not just "religious" objects, like a cross, which is not imbued with the same spirit. I think it is the same for the Torah, and my understanding of Jewish objects:  That they are living religious objects.

And as people, these two cultures, Native culture and Jewish culture, have experienced attempted genocide. My mother is Christian, and fascinated by Judaism; she grew up in a church where they would talk about the parallels between Christianity and Judaism…. And many of my father's collectors are Jewish, so that's another way she learned about Judaism. 

When you use the phrase "living religious objects" — you mean objects that maintain identity?

It is my understanding that when a Torah is buried, it is like a person. It is a matter of respect, and also it has an emotional impact.

What are your plans for the future?

I will finish school, and apply for the Peace Corps, as I feel blessed with what I have, and wish to give back, and grow, become a better citizen. Then I will go back to grad school, to get a degree in design.

What have you gained from your visit to France? Will you come back?

I liked it—it was always a dream of mine to live in Paris, and it met my expectations. I really liked the beauty, the architecture, the museums, the food, the way people dress. I liked walking the streets, along the river; the Ile St. Louis, the Jardin des Tuileries—so peaceful. And the Parisians were nice to me.  So I will definitely come back.

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Bo Lomahquahu, the Native Student Who Spoke Up at the Katsinam Auction in Paris

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