Tribe Sees Its Culture for Sale ; Hopis of Arizona Seek to Halt Paris Auction, but Laws to Help Are Lacking

By Mashberg, Tom | International Herald Tribune, April 5, 2013 | Go to article overview

Tribe Sees Its Culture for Sale ; Hopis of Arizona Seek to Halt Paris Auction, but Laws to Help Are Lacking


Mashberg, Tom, International Herald Tribune


With no U.S. reciprocal agreements governing American artifacts abroad, the Hopis of Arizona are left to do battle on their own in trying to recover the objects for sale, which they regard as sacred.

In a rare case of a cultural heritage claim arising from the sale of American artifacts abroad, the Hopi Indians of Arizona have asked federal officials to help stop a high-price auction of 70 sacred masks in Paris next week.

The tribe is receiving advice from the U.S. State and Interior Departments, but each agency says its ability to intervene is limited.

In many ways, the Hopi case illustrates a paradox in the way artifacts are repatriated around the world.

While foreign nations routinely rely on international accords to secure American help in retrieving antiquities from the United States, Washington has no reciprocal agreements governing American artifacts abroad. And the U.S. laws that provide some protection against the illicit sale of Indian artifacts in the United States have no weight in other countries. So tribes reaching overseas to recover objects that they view as culturally important are left to do battle on their own.

"Right now there just aren't any prohibitions against this kind of large foreign sale," said Jack F. Trope, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, which is seeking new laws and treaties that would give the United States more force to intervene. "The leverage for international repatriation just isn't there."

The Hopis, who number about 18,000 in northeastern Arizona, regard the Paris-sale objects, which they call Katsinam, or "friends," as imbued with divine spirits. They object to calling them "masks" and say that outsiders who photograph, collect or sell them are committing sacrilege. 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 Neret-Minet auction house in Paris says that its sale, on April 12, will be one of the largest auctions of Hopi artifacts ever, and it estimates that it will bring in $1 million. Many of the objects are more than 100 years old and carry estimates of $10,000 to $35,000. The auction house says that among the spirits represented are the Crow Mother, the Little Fire God and the Mud Head Clown.

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

The auction house says that a collector who has not been identified legally bought the items in the United States at sales and auctions over 30 years, beginning in the 1930s, and that the coming auction complies with French law.

"This sale is not just a business transaction but a homage to the Hopi Indians," said Gilles Neret-Minet, the director of the house.

Historians say many Hopi artifacts were taken long ago by people who found them unattended in shrines and on altars along the mesas of the Southwest. Others were confiscated by missionaries who came to convert the tribe in the late 19th century. Some were sold by tribe members. But even those sales were not legitimate, Hopi leaders say, because they may have been made under duress, and because the tribe holds that an individual cannot hold title to its religious artifacts -- they are owned communally.

The market for American Indian artifacts, at home and abroad, is robust, experts say, and auctions of Indian items in the United States typically proceed unimpeded by American law and unchallenged by most tribes. There are some protections, though, under U.S. theft statutes, experts say, as well as restrictions on the sale of pieces by museums and federal agencies. …

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