FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Hopi Tribe opposes the sale of 70 sacred objects, which date back to the 1930s, at the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house on April 12 in France.
According to centuries old Hopi cultural beliefs, these sacred objects belong communally to the entire Hopi Tribe and cannot be owned by a single person. The objects have no monetary value and, therefore, cannot be sold.
"The mere fact that a price tag has been placed upon such culturally significant and religious items is beyond offensive," said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Tribe's Cultural Preservation Office. "They do not have a market value. Period."
In addition, the Hopi Tribe believes a French citizen who was visiting the reservation may have obtained the sacred objects illegally.
"We think these sacred objects were stolen from the Hopi Tribe and should be returned to the proper custodians and caretakers, the Kachina chiefs, within their respective Hopi villages," said Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa.
The Hopi Tribe has contacted various U.S. federal government agencies and other groups to postpone or cancel the sale, though it is unclear whether or not they will be successful.
"We don't know that [whether we will be successful], but we will keep doing what we can to stop the sale from taking place," Shingoitewa said. "Our concern is to do anything in our power to persuade and convince the auction house that what is taking place is very disrespectful to the Hopi people and to our way of life."
The tribe hopes the message gets through to the French government, to the French people and to those who can influence the auction house.
The Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff have posted letters on their Facebook pages criticizing the auction. The museums sent the letters to the auction house as well to ask for the sale to be cancelled.
Both museums work within the requirements of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). NAGPRA, enacted in 1990, details a process for the return of cultural items such as sacred objects or objects of cultural patrimony to their rightful American Indian tribes and organizations. But the law does not have jurisdiction outside of the United States.
While France was the first to sign a resolution enacted by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) based on Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (NDRIP) which supports the repatriation of such objects from other countries, this resolution is not binding.
In a Facebook post on the Museum of Northern Arizona's website, Jim Enote, director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, N.M, questioned whether anyone outside of the community can authenticate the sacred objects.
"No international laws that I'm aware of exist to prevent the sale of these items without that evidence. But even with laws such as those that exist in the U.S., we all know unlawful trade in Native American ceremonial objects and antiquities continues," Enote said.
According to the New York Times, the director of the auction house and Mr. Neret-Minet said the auction should be considered a homage to the Hopi people and they should be happy that people want to understand and analyze their civilization.
"This is selling sacred objects that are central to the way the Hopi's sacred processes is. For them to equate the sacred objects basically to the idea of art is very wrong," Shingoitewa said. "We just do not agree that what was in the New York Times and what the Neret-Minet auction house said show any respect to our Hopi people. We are not going to accept that as a reason to go ahead with the auction."
Shingoitewa said what people see in art galleries or exhibits or items for sale are representations of what the Hopi use in daily life but the sacred objects at the auction house are completely different.
"What is being auctioned off is not an art object, it has a spiritual value to us in that it is used in our spiritual world and for it to be used in this way is a total disrespect for what is going on in Hopi country," Shingoitewa said.
Shingoitewa said the role of the tribal council, his office and the Cultural Preservation Office is to do everything they can to ask the auction house to stop the auction and to protect what is rightfully their way of life.
"We are working very hard with all agencies to try and stop what is going on, not only there but throughout the world," Shingoitewa said. "We also have to be aware of protecting our way of life among our people, as well. We also ask this of our people that we begin to look back at ourselves on how to better take care of our way of life," Shingoitewa said.
It would be a relief if the sacred items were returned, said Mervin Voyetwa, tribal council representative.
"We just want them back home," said Art Batala, another tribal council member.