Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou, a Parisian auction house that I’m sure perceives itself as catering to only the “best people,” is about to auction off cultural patrimony looted from the Hopi Nation.
Auctioneer Gilles Néret-Minet dismissed Hopi claims because “they rely on an article of the Hopi constitution which is not recognized in France because it is not a State." While the indecency of this sale is recognized by many less sophisticated than French art dealers, I am personally inflamed by the swell-headed arrogance of not recognizing the Hopi Nation combined with ignorance of the scientific consensus that the Hopi have inhabited what is now the Four Corners area of the United States since 500 B.C.E.
Plenty of American Indians have oral traditions that place them on their land from time immemorial, but I am talking about white people, archaeologists and historians, doing what they do by the standards of their academic trades.
The Hopi people have occupied their mesas though the entradas of the Spanish gold seekers. In the 17th Century, they joined with other peaceful farmers in the Pueblo Rebellion, which ran the Spaniards out of Pueblo lands over numerous instances of theft, homicide, rape, and kidnapping. Some call the Pueblo Rebellion a rejection of “civilization.” I’m a retired criminal justice professor, so I always saw it as a crackdown on crime.
Spanish jurisdiction, assuming it ever existed, ended with the Treaty of Córdoba in 1821, although Spain never ratified Córdoba and vainly asserted sovereignty until 1836. The US fought a war of conquest against Mexico that ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, and these people who had never been Spanish and never been Mexican became not Americans. American Indians were not recognized as US citizens until 1924.
Even though the Hopis were not Americans, the US attempted to impose its culture in a manner not seen since the Spanish. Hopi Chief Lomahongyoma and 18 others served hard time in Alcatraz from January 3rd to August 7, 1895, because of their resistance to forced acculturation.
The Hopi Nation endured, the Hopi ceremonial cycle—which involves the use of the masks that the French barbarians claim the right to sell—endures, and the French ratification of the looting of Hopiland for “artwork” is a striking bit of ignorance in a people who claim sophistication far beyond the ken of Americans, let alone American Indians.
There is a similar and more recent looting that has disturbed the traditional customs of every art dealer in Europe. Not everybody knows that the word “genocide” is new to the human vocabulary, but most people know the events that led to it, the death of approximately six million Jews because Adolf Hitler, an ideological racist, conflated a religion with a race. Jewish people call it Shoah, related to the English words “calamity” or “catastrophe”; the rest of us refer to The Holocaust.
The horror of the mass killings somewhat trivializes the concomitant looting, a looting that was coextensive with Hitler’s racial fantasies. A scholar writing about Eastern Europe observed, “Because the Slavs were considered an inferior race, the Germans looted and pillaged private homes, state museums, and churches. They took all the ‘Germanic art’ that they could find and destroyed what they did not take.” The Nazis held bonfires of “degenerate art.”
This would be a familiar scenario to American Indians. To this day, the best cultural artifacts of the Aztec Empire can be seen in the Prado and the Museum of the Americas, Madrid, Spain.
The Mayan Codices, which would have been the best evidence of a literate and scientifically based civilization, were destroyed by order of Bishop Diego de Landa, who wrote: "We found a large number of books in these (Mayan) characters and, as they contained nothing not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction." As this is written, the only Mayan books preserved to the present are named for their locations: the Madrid Codex, the Dresden Codex and the Paris Codex.
Paris brings us back to what the French should know about looting based on racism. About a fourth of French Jews went to the death camps, but many others turned their property over to the French government for safekeeping from the Nazis.
Michelle I. Turner, writing in the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, pointed out: “In the case of Nazi-looted art, there is, today at least, a great deal of information available about what happened during World War II, and there is a great awareness even among the general public of the danger that an artwork may have been looted. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that an art buyer who purchases a looted artwork today can later claim to have been completely innocent.”
The question becomes whether the urbane and sophisticated French can similarly understand the American Indian holocaust and the looting that accompanied it? Hiding behind non-recognition of the Hopi government ignores the French government’s ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which provides in Article 11: “States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.”
Failing to halt this convocation of thieves ignores a plea from the government that has ordered life on the Three Mesas for longer than white people have walked on this land. If this represents civilization, I’m content as a heathen.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.