American Tribe Fights To Halt Artifact Auction In Paris

NPR icon by Tanya Ballard Brown
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Miguel Medina

An auction of sacred Native American artifacts scheduled for Friday in Paris is stirring up controversy on both sides of the Atlantic

Seventy Hopi "visages and headdresses" — some more than 100 years old — will go on the block at the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house, which estimates the sale will bring in about $1 million, according to The New York Times.

But members of the Hopi Tribe of Arizona say the pieces should not be sold and instead should be returned to Hopi villages. They've asked U.S. officials to intervene.

Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office in Kykotsmovi, Ariz., told The Times: "Sacred items like this should not have a commercial value. The bottom line is we believe they were taken illegally."

Tribal members say the sacred objects are not "masks" and that outsiders who photograph, collect or sell them are committing sacrilege, according to the Times. It adds:

"The Hopis, who number about 18,000 in northeast Arizona, regard the objects in the Paris sale, which they call Katsinam, or 'friends,' as imbued with divine spirits. ...

"The brightly colored visages and headdresses, often adorned with horsehair, sheepskin, feathers and maize, are thought to embody the spirits of warriors, animals, messengers, fire, rain and clouds, among other things. They are used today, as in the past, in many Hopi rites, like coming-of-age ceremonies and harvest rituals."

The owner of the items slated for auction hasn't been publicly identified, but the auctioneers say the pieces were legally obtained by a French collector over more than 30 years while living in the U.S.

Last week, Philip J. Breeden, cultural affairs minister for the U.S. Embassy in Paris, wrote to the Neret-Minet auction house asking it to postpone the sale. "Given the ancestry of these masks and the distance between Paris and the Hopi reservation, requesting a delay seems reasonable to allow for a complete examination of the situation," he wrote, according to the Times.

On Tuesday, London-based advocacy group Survival International filed a court action in Paris to try and stop the sale. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday to determine whether the sale can proceed.

All Things Considered will have more on this story later today.

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