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Despite Protests, Paris Auction of Sacred Native American Objects Goes Ahead

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)
Governor Kurt Riley of the Pueblo of Acoma, with Conroy Chino, Traditional Leader of the Pueblo of Acoma, speaking at the emergency meeting held last week at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian regarding the EVE auction of indigenous human remains and sacred objects (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Despite calls for a halt from US government officials and tribal leaders, EVE (Estimations Ventes aux Enchères) auction house went forward yesterday at Drouot Richelieu in Paris with a sale that included contested indigenous sacred objects and human remains. The auction followed an emergency meeting at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian last Tuesday, as well as a statement from Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that called on the French government to assist in repatriating the objects.

There was one success that followed the outcry and that was when an Acoma shield was removed from the auction after reports that it may have been acquired illegally in the 1970s. In a statement shared today by the Pueblo of Acoma, Governor Kurt Riley stated that the shield “had been in the care of an Acoma family until it was stolen four decades ago from their home on the Pueblo.” He added that while it was removed from sale, “there are other tribes whose sacred objects were sold at this auction, in violation of their tribal laws and likely federal law as well.” The tribe is still in the process of negotiating for the shield’s return, with the Pueblo of Acoma stating that the French auction house “remains steadfast, claiming US federal laws don’t apply.”

The "scalps" jacket being sold by EVE auction house (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic, via Drouot Live)
The “scalps” jacket being sold by EVE auction house (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic, via Drouot Live)

Other contested objects that went to auction included a “scalps” jacket adorned with human hair. Through the Drouot Live stream, it appeared to sell for €11,000 (~$12,252). However at this time, Hyperallergic’s request to EVE for auction results has not been returned. Alain Leroy, auctioneer at EVE, had previously replied to a request for comment by saying that “all the items proposed are of legal trade in the US and in France,” and 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.”

Russell Eagle Bear, the tribal historic preservation officer with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, affirmed to Hyperallergic that it is “certainly a Lakota war shirt,” and the hair on the ceremonial garment is human hair.

“I think they think that we’re extinct people, and we’re treated as such by other countries, and here we have something with this hair that is part of a human being,” Eagle Bear said. “We were trying to stop [the sale], and our hands were tied, we only found out about it last week.” He added that they still want to find out who purchased the shirt, which has not been disclosed, and hope that the purchasing party will return it. “One of the things I’m learning is some of these objects leave the country illegally, and they go to places like France or England where they’re not bound by our federal laws,” he said. “The Lakota people, we have our language, we have our culture, we have a way of life, and we still exist as Lakota people, and there’s no respect for that.”

Other contested human remains objects, including a mummified Nazca foot and a Peruvian shrunken head, were skipped in the auction, although their status is not clear as of now. D. Bambi Kraus, president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, who spoke out about the Lakota shirt at last week’s Smithsonian press conference, told Hyperallergic that she continues “to condemn the sale and trafficking of human remains and that these cultural items are not art pieces and were never to be sold or taken out of their respective communities.”

Though the AP reported protests outside the auction house in Paris, they did not appear to disrupt the proceedings inside. Monday’s auction is only the latest in a series of disputed sales at EVE involving indigenous sacred objects, going back to 2013. Throughout the livestream from Drouot, the Lakota jacket loomed behind the auctioneer, a visual reminder of the contested cultural heritage being sold.

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