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 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.
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.”
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.