Hopi Seek to Prevent Paris Auction of Katsinam

An auction of 70 Native artifacts has caused a great deal of consternation in Indian country — and now, with one week to go, the Hopi are appealing to the U.S. government for help in preventing it

The auction of katsinam, or "friends," is scheduled for April 12 at the Neret-Minet Auction House in Paris. According to a New York Times story, the Hopi have reached out to federal officials and are receiving advice from the State and Interior Departments on what, if anything, might be done to stop the sale.

The Hopi see the matter of repatriating the items, referred to by the auction house as "masks," as an international responsibility no different from the repatriating of antiquities looted from Europe or the Middle East. But there's a big problem in this instance: Although the U.S. authorities help foreign countries retrieve artifacts being sold stateside, other countries aren't bound to reciprocate. Jack F. Trope, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs told the Times, "Right now there just aren’t any prohibitions against this kind of large foreign sale. … The leverage for international repatriation just isn’t there."

Robert Breunig, Ph.D., director of the Museum of Northern Arizona, sent a letter to Neret-Minet, and also posted it to the museum's Facebook page. "I am writing to request that you cancel this auction, withdraw the katsina friends from sale, and that they be returned by the 'owner' to the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Jemez people," he wrote. "I have placed quotation marks around the word 'owner,' because no one can 'own' them but the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Jemez people. Although katsina friends can be held and cared for by individuals, they belong to the communities from which they come. … I can tell you from personal knowledge that the proposed sale of these katsina friends, and the international exposure of them, is causing outrage, sadness, and stress among members of the affected tribes."

The Heard Museum, in Phoenix, also posted a letter to the Neret-Minet on its Facebook page, and called on the auction house to honor the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) as a consequence of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP): "Although NAGPRA does not normally have jurisdiction outside of the United States, since France has agreed to abide by the provisions of the UNDRIP, we feel that the nation should take steps to return these ceremonial objects as defined in Article 12 of the declaration."

The Heard letter also quoted a statement issued by Hopi Cultural Preservation Office Director Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma: "It is our position that these sacred objects should have never left the jurisdiction of the Hopi Tribe. Also, no Hopi has any right or authority to transfer and sell these items currently in your possession as they are considered cultural patrimony. Religious objects such as these, [sic] have no commercial value. It is our position that no one, other than a Hopi tribal member, has a right to possess these ceremonial objects."

In an editorial on this site, Jim Enote, director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, Zuni, New Mexico, called into question the authenticity of Hopi artifacts that would end up at an auction house in Europe. 

But Gilles Néret-Minet, director of the auction house, told the New York Times that the auction "is not just a business transaction but a homage to the Hopi Indians." He added that he thinks "the Hopis should be happy that so many people want to understand and analyze their civilization."

But Kuwanwisiwma begs to differ. "The Hopi Tribe is just disgusted with the continued offensive marketing of Hopi culture," he told the New York Times.

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