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The emergency meeting at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian regarding the EVE auction of indigenous human remains and sacred objects (courtesy NMAI)

This afternoon, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, DC, hosted an emergency meeting of tribal leaders, government representatives, and NGO officials to call for a halt to a Monday auction in Paris that involves human remains and sacred indigenous objects. The May 30 Art Amerindien, Art Precolombien, Afrique et Oceanie sale, organized by EVE (Estimations Ventes aux Enchères) auction house at Drouot Richelieu, is the latest wound in the ongoing battle to repatriate spiritual objects, many of which were lost during the forcible relocation and assimilation of indigenous people.

The Acoma shield in the May 30 EVE auction (screenshot by the author via auctioneve.com) (click to enlarge)

“The whole world condemns the destruction of Palmyra by ISIS, the National Geographic cover story this month is about tomb raiders, and just as these things are happening worldwide, they are also happening in the United States with regards to the plundering of native cultures,” said Governor Kurt Riley of the Pueblo of Acoma at the meeting. Riley singled out an Acoma shield in the auction, a “sacred item which no individual can own” and would never have been sold. “How it left the pueblo we don’t know,” he added. “However, its mere existence and presence outside of the pueblo tells us that an event occurred that violated Acoma law.”

Bradley Marshall of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California explained that when “these objects are created for spiritual use within our community, a spirit goes into them. These objects are living beings to us, these objects are a part of our family, these objects are a part of who we are as a community.” A Hoopa ceremonial deer is listed for the May 30 auction. D. Bambi Kraus, president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, also cited a warrior jacket that is purportedly with hair from human scalps. “In our world, if that’s human remains, you cannot sell human remains,” Kraus said.

Governor Kurt Riley of the Pueblo of Acoma, with Conroy Chino, Traditional Leader of the Pueblo of Acoma, speaking at the emergency meeting (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Many speakers emphasized the need for better cultural protection both in the United States and abroad. The auctions at EVE have been particularly problematic: Last year, the house went forward with a sale of Hopi masks despite legal challenges. Last month, Frances Madeson reported for Indian Country Today that since 2013, when the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office was first alerted to sacred objects at auction in Paris, there have been eight more sales and no decision in French courts in the tribe’s favor. In France, Madeson adds, “all that’s required to establish lawful ownership is a ‘Certificate of Rightful Possession’ — easy enough for French families to produce.”

These auctions are part of a wider problem with enforcing repatriation, even if the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has helped somewhat in the United States. “This problem is not limited to France,” Riley said. “In the past year for the Acoma pueblo alone, there were 10 incidents in the United States involving at least 24 items of cultural patrimony.”

Anasazi bone fragments in the May 30 EVE auction (screenshot by the author via auctioneve.com)

Hyperallergic reached out to EVE for comment prior to the meeting, but was told that auctioneer Alain Leroy “waits to hear what they have to say.” In the past, Leroy has been dismissive of tribal claims; last year, he told the AP, “It’s legal. It’s business. What’s the problem? […] The tribes are shocked, yes. But to each his own morality.”

Perusing the 442 lots listed for Monday’s sale, it’s easy to see that these indigenous objects are good business for the company, with one Hopi mask from Arizona estimated between €40,000–60,000 (~ $44,564–66,846). The emotional weight of these sales upon the speakers was evident at the press conference — they mentioned the cultural upheaval under which the objects vanished and the sorrow at seeing things they’d thought had gone forever turn up at auction, only to disappear again into private collections.

“It adds insult to injury that this sort of sale would take place on our Memorial Day, because it is a virtual certainty that citizens of these three tribes fought in Europe in World War I and World War II,” NMAI President Kevin Gover said, referring to the date of the sale. “It’s almost a certainty that they gave their lives there.”

Congressman Steve Pearce of New Mexico also attended, discussing the House Concurrent Resolution 122 he introduced that calls on governmental departments “to consult with tribes and traditional Native American religious leaders in addressing this issue, to take affirmative action to stop these practices, and to secure repatriation of tribal cultural items.” The resolution asks the Government Accountability Office to “determine the scope of illegal trafficking in tribal cultural items and identify steps required to end such trafficking.” Said Pearce, “We can do better in the world and we can do better in this country.”

As of this writing, there has been no response from the French government.

“These are living, breathing objects — they belong in their homeland,” said Jackson Brossy, executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office. “These are irreplaceable and must be returned now. We pray that the French authorities look beyond the short term profit, respect American laws, and do what is right in the eyes of humanity and stop this auction now.”

UPDATE, 5/25: Alain Leroy of EVE responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, stating that “all the items proposed are of legal trade in the US and in France,” directing attention to “quotes” in the online catalogue from various news reports both associated with past auctions and previous ownership of objects. “Also I may add that the public auction process allows the different tribes to acquire their past, and that is exactly what some tribes prefer to do, seeking efficiency and discretion,” he said.

The recorded live stream of the emergency meeting at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, is available online.

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41 replies on “Smithsonian Hosts Emergency Meeting About Paris Auction of Indigenous Remains and Objects [UPDATED]”

  1. Thank you again, Allison Meier, for addressing Native American issues.

    (There were many articles on the $20 bill mentioning Jackson as a slave holder but you were one of the few I saw to mention the Trail of Tears.)

    This article doesn’t say what will be done with the French auction objects if they are returned but I find the issues of repatriating objects is especially difficult one when it means the loss of the objects for future scholarship.
    For example:
    “The Wounded Knee Survivors Association has also successfully advocated for the repatriation of objects pilfered from their ancestors’ bodies. Mario Gonzalez (Oglala Lakota), former attorney for the survivors’ association, brokered a deal to repatriate objects held by a library in Barre, Massachusetts. The collection, which included locks of hair believed to belong to Chief Big Foot, was replaced with replicas crafted by traditional Lakota artists.”

    The original objects were to then buried in South Dakota.

    It’s a difficult subject.

    Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/12/29/wounded-knee-healing-wounds-past-162896

    https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1309&dat=19930301&id=1uBOAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ChQEAAAAIBAJ&pg=3710,194027&hl=en

    1. I cannot speak for the tribes, but since the items being contested are often seen not as objects but spiritual beings (the katsinam, for instance), that, along with the physical human remains being auctioned, the goal is to return them to their community and respect their intended role as members of that community.

      1. I do understand and respect that side of the argument.
        But loss of the information contained in those items about the culture that was able survive is also a concern.
        And I’m fascinated with the ways people try to equitably answer those concerns. Like using 3d printing for remains so the real remains can be properly buried. (I can’t find a citation for that. I saw it on TV years ago.)

        1. I would point out, though, that these contested objects are moving between private collections, and I’m not sure that there’s any scholarship being gained or lost in that process.

          1. I see your point .
            A museum will be unlikely to buy it with the current controversy.

            but at the former Goldwater Library (now part of the Watson) at the Met they archived those auction catalogs. The text was often hilariously sketchy buy those photos were valuable for scholorship.

  2. What’s the ontology of a warrior jacket?

    Does its composition originate with the murderers who made it, or does its existence ultimately originate with the people who were murdered for their skin (e.g., Apache, Cherokee, Europeans, etc.) to honor some tree god or whatever shit religion.

    Taking a skin suit from the Hopi [using Hopi for sake of argument; probably wasn’t the Hopi] isn’t as bad as the Hopi making a skin suit in the first place. At least ISIS isn’t wearing the bodies of people they murdered. The French auctioneer is absolutely right and the only person with ethical clarity here: “…to each his own morality.”

    Honoring the religion of people who make body-part clothes is unethical. If the Hopi really believe and follow that shit, they should try making more warrior jackets and see how that goes. But they don’t believe in it and nor does anyone else. Let them make new jackets out of doll hair. Maybe Mark Ryden will help.

      1. It likely isn’t since Hopi means “peaceful people.”

        Any idea who made the skin suit?

        Maybe it’s made of British heads from the French Indian war and given to the French out of solidarity and now the French want to sell it to the Brits because they want their head parts back.

        Seriously, everything about this is f*cked up and to moralize the French for owning another culture’s murder prize is not a rational response to the situation.

    1. It’s not merely a matter of honoring a culture or religion, but a matter of representation. I hardly think the auction house is much concerned with the way the winning bidder represents the artifact as long as they get paid.

      1. They shouldn’t be concerned at all with who wants the skin suit. It can better represent the makers in a museum, perhaps the Torture Museum in Amsterdam. Or the tearful Smithsonian can buy it, do forensics, and see what people group provided their heads for the garment. Maybe they were British scalps from the French Indian war and can be sent to the Tate with a note of condolence.

    2. Where are you getting this “skin suit” business? The shield, shirt, and Hupa deer are made with animal hides (primarily deerhide).

      1. Look up scalp in the dictionary and stop making things up in these comment threads. Correcting you is annoying and I’m not doing it anymore. Bye.

        1. The shirt does not have human flesh. There is no “skin suit” in the auction.

    3. …Who are you? Are you Native? Do you have any actual cultural and/or scholarly knowledge of what you’re going on about here beyond things you read on the internet?

  3. Thank you, Allison Meier, for covering this complex and fraught subject, and thank you, Hyperallergic, for your continued coverage of Native art issues. Discussing sacred beings in a largely secular art world is a challenge, but Meier did an excellent job.

    Under international law, these are stolen works and should not be auctioned. There is no legal way that an individual could obtain a work belonging collectively to an entire tribe. Hopefully, France will acknowledge this and put an end to these illegal auctions.

  4. The Lakota shirt being auctions appears to have belonged to a member of the Shirt-Wearer’s Society, a prestigious Lakota warrior society. The locks of hair are *not* from enemy scalps, but locks of hair from the Shirt-Wearer’s tiospaye, or extended family, to represent all the people depended upon on the Shirt-Wearer for their safety and protection.

      1. The context is in the auction house’s description in your own link. You should have read it. The jacket is made of scalps. You know, “put the lotion in the basket!” Why bother researching this just to cave to the first stranger offering a baseless obfuscation of the truth?

        1. Honestly, if you believe everything auction houses tell you then that’s all we need to know. Please be respectful of the author and other commenters.

          1. I believe it to be more reliable than an anonymous commenter here and you should too. If it’s not reliable, don’t link to it in your news article.

          2. I listen. I get curious. Then I do research. It went like this. (1) No-name commenter said something that contradicts clear claim in the article. (2) Read link to source of clear claim in article. (3) Compare the two statements for probable accuracy. Use multiple criteria to weigh the two for their “epistemic” value. If it’s not clear, do more research, or go on with life. In any case, this isn’t worth debating anymore because the facts are there and now the comments are being policed for niceness in order to avoid them.

            OK, back to work for me. Have a wonderful evening.

        2. Yes, I translated the auction house’s description and their information is incorrect. A major problem for anyone who would care to purchase these illegally-gained items is the only people that are qualified to truly access their authenticity would be the tribes themselves. The items all could, very easily, be fakes, and no one truly knows except for the religious practitioners of the tribes that made them.

          1. I don’t buy that. Sure, there are under-qualified authenticators out there, but to say only one group of people is qualified to authenticate something is as baseless as it is improbable. I’m sticking with president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers on this one: it’s scalps.

    1. D. Bambi Kraus, president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, is arguing against the sale of the warrior jacket because it is made of “human remains” (real scalps) and thus illegal to sell. If its only human element is hair (like lots of goods, including wigs, are, and art) then the sale is perfectly legal. If you are right, Kraus is making a false claim and his argument against the sale is invalid. But you are not right if the auction catalogue and expert on tribal preservation are, instead.

        1. No, you can buy locks of hair at auction. Elvis clippings went for $112,000. John Lennon’s went for $48,000. Etc.

          I will sell you mine on Ebay.

          1. I don’t think “sacred” has anything to do with the law. “Human remains” probably encompasses whatever we think of as essential to personhood, and that’s what’s being protected, violence to personhood. Fingernails, hair, one’s own frozen blood in the shape of human heads made as art, don’t count.

            That’s my guess. Not interested enough to research it.

  5. What an an amazing mess!
    Just to say- historically, the victors get rights to plunder and determine what is and is not of cultural or sacred importance. That is no defense.
    It seems to me that ritual objects, whether or not the ritual is universal, are still ritual objects and “making an offer one can’t refuse” is beside the point and perhaps a matter of a deep breach of conscience. Stealing would be the same.
    And to claim as the auctioneer seems to, “that some prefer to buy back their artifacts” is essentially extortion. That statement says a lot about the duplicity at work.
    As to all the business of sacredness, spirit, and religion, one thread that seems to run universally is that my beliefs in the “other”, are directly dependent upon my willingness to accept that another’s beliefs are as valid to them. Noone is left out of this as “no belief in ___” is a belief in itself and yields no quarter to the sullied handling of these objects as objects.
    If we are currently seeing ourselves on such a high enlightened pinnacle as many would contend, then it’s time we made some deeply serious changes in how we individually and collectively deal with each other.
    These sales are wrong-headed to say the least.

    1. That was very heartwarming. But if you lived where the French auctioneer does, where ISIS members murder people in concerts and cafes, you’d likely be lest belletristic with that bullshit multiculturalism. He had it right: “…to each his own morality.” That is multiculturalism. Your multiculturalism is a ride at Epcot center mistaking itself as a studies in geo-politics. Stay on vacay, my friend. As long as you can…

        1. I would say “believe me, I know what it is” – but it makes no difference if you do or don’t. Point is, this dude is grossly naive.

          1. Naive or not. Barbarism does not qual culture. It can not be used as an excuse for or an argument against culture. At its heart “multi-culturalism” really can’t be embraced because we all have a cultural context.
            The best we can hope for is an understanding but for most, that’s too difficult and fearful to comprehend.
            It’s so much easier to ham-fistedly say, “to each his own in the matter of ____”. The blank could include culture, ethics, religion, et.al., but the chosen word was morality
            Happy that you are so comfortable on your perch and that it’s so stable, given so much structural fallacy at its base.
            Best wishes.

          2. All fallacies are “structural” since in each the premises do not entail the conclusion. So what you mean by “so much structural fallacy” is anyone’s guess. Not interested in debating you, but to sum this up, the Frenchman is speaking from a philosophical tradition that denies the existence of universal morals, all-governing abstract principles to which all people are obligated to observe. There is no philosophical basis for them in French thought (for various reasons). That is not my view, but it is a valid one and appropriate enough to dismiss giving murder trophies to the people who claim to have made and rightly own them. In other words, there is no foundation to justify the Native American’s moral appeal for getting what they think they deserve. So, on with life.

            Take care.

  6. Mr Leroy, “It’s business it’s illegal what’s the problem?” It is like selling items stolen from Jewish people’s homes when they were taken to concentration camps during the Holocaust. This is genocide, these are sacred stolen artifacts stolen from homes of people victim to the worlds greatest genocide. That’s the problem. Good luck sleeping at night with that reality in your unconsciousness.

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