FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — An Arizona tribe is asking a Paris auction house to cancel its upcoming sale of dozens of items central to the tribe's religious practices and return them to their original homes in the American Southwest.
Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou describes the collection on its website as katsina masks of the Hopi Indians of Arizona. They are scheduled to be auctioned April 12, with some expected to garner tens of thousands of dollars each.
To the Hopis, they are living beings called katsina friends that emerge from the earth and sky to connect people to the spiritual world and their ancestors. Every member of the Hopi Tribe gets initiated into the Katsina society as a rite of passage.
Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the tribe's cultural preservation office, said the religious items have no commercial value and should be in the hands of the American Indian tribes from which they were taken, including the pueblos of Jemez, Acoma and Zuni in New Mexico. The sale of such items isn't extraordinary, but the size of the collection to be auctioned in Paris and the age of the items is, he said.
The majority of the 70 katsina friends are labeled as Hopi and date back to the late 19th century and early 20th century. Kuwanwisiwma said they likely were collected from the Hopi in the 1930s and 1940s when there was documented evidence of a French citizen on the northern Arizona reservation.
"A lot of these objects were collected under suspicious conditions," he said. "You had such a huge competition by museums to collect artifacts from tribal reservations, and Hopi was no exception."
Acoma Pueblo said Wednesday that it would look into whether a piece labeled as originating from Acoma is authentic and would support any efforts to repatriate American Indian artifacts.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act gives federally recognized American Indian tribes a way to reclaim funerary objects and ceremonial items from federal agencies and museums in the United States. Sherry Hutt, the program manager for the national NAGPRA office under the U.S. Department of the Interior said the law doesn't always apply to items held internationally.
"Did it leave at the time by gift or was it removed without permission? What were the rules at the time?" she said. "Once you know that, you may or may not have an application of NAGPRA, you may or may not have statues that apply to cultural resources or other remedies, generally."