Villagers in Shonghopavi, Arizona wearing Katsina masks (Image via Wikimedia)

Villagers in Shonghopavi, Arizona wearing Katsina masks (Image via Wikimedia)

Wednesday morning, Paris’s Drouot auction house proceeded with a contentious sale of objects sacred to the Hopi Tribe of northern Arizona. The tribe had vocally opposed the auction of eight Kachina masks, integral to the group’s religious ceremonies. The sale came just over a week after another controversial auction of six similar artifacts by Parisian auction house Eve. Since 2013, France has hosted at least four other similar auctions.

According to the AFP, Drouot defended the sale, saying it could certify the legality of each item. It noted that during the 19th century — a time when the Hopi people suffered greatly during the United States’ westward expansion — many were known to sell Kachina masks and effigies known as Katsina Friends.

“It’s legal. It’s business. What’s the problem?” auctioneer Alain Leroy told the AP. “The tribes are shocked, yes. But to each his own morality.”

Such sales may be legal in France, but they have been outlawed in the US. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (many of the objects use the birds’ feathers) both prohibit selling or buying Hopi artifacts.

The Hopi Tribe has tried to use these laws as leverage with French authorities. Ahead of the June 1 auction, it cited them when asking France’s Conseil des Ventes (Board of Auction Sales) to stop it and, according to the AP, Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie and Arizona Representative Paul Gosar also appealed to US law enforcement agencies for support. An alliance of museum directors even sent a letter to French President François Hollande. They wrote:

Today, the sale of such objects violates various federal, state, and tribal statutes that protect the United States’ cultural resources and tribal property, and prohibit trafficking in stolen goods and various species of birds. In addition to these laws, US case law has clearly established that buying or selling katsina friends is a crime under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (“NAGPRA”). EVE auction house’s statements that NAGPRA 2 does not have criminal prohibitions on the trafficking in katsina friends or in other NAGPRA defined sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony are a blatant and offensive misstatement of US law.

But the French government has refused to halt the sales. After the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) asked the Conseil des Ventes (CVV) to suspend a June 2014 auction, the agency replied that the Hopi Tribe has no legal existence and is therefore unable to take action under French law. (In fact, the tribe is federally recognized, with the majority of its roughly 14,000 members occupying a reservation in northeastern Arizona).

Despite the recent setbacks, the Hopi Tribe is not backing down. In April, the tribal council, together with HARP, filed a lawsuit in France against CVV. “The CVV’s position is unsustainable: no adjudication authority can, as the CVV repeatedly did, refuse the most basic access to justice by holding that neither the Hopi tribe as a group, nor the Hopi tribe Chairman as an individual, have any standing to file any cultural claim in France,” HARP and the tribe wrote in a statement. In May, they also sent a letter to the US Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James B. Comey, asking the Department of Justice and FBI to review the issue.

Additionally, HARP lawyer Pierre Servan Schreiber told Indian Country that the organization has prepared a Franco-US treaty “reciprocating the Native repatriation act of the United States, in French law.” It would require that all items exported after 1990 be returned to the Hopi Tribe. The document has already been sent to French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who has expressed an interest in the tribe’s plight.

“It should go through Parliament, so it is not going to happen tomorrow. We are looking at one or two years, before a draft law is proposed,” Schreiber said, “but I hope that one day, people will realize that not everything can be bought or sold.”

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...