French sell sacred objects at auction again

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell meets with French officials seeking better protections for U.S. tribes

PARIS - U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell met with French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira Dec. 2 to express the United States' concern about tribal sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony that are sold at French auction houses, and to seek cooperation in working to return objects to Indian tribes in the United States.

In the meeting, Jewell and Taubira discussed their shared commitment in helping tribes repatriate their sacred cultural objects that, under tribal customary law, are owned by the tribe as a whole and cannot be legally sold by individuals. The Secretary and Minister agreed to explore pathways that might provide greater protections for U.S. tribes seeking to repatriate their cultural property.

Jewell also met with President Catherine Chadelat of the Conseil des Ventes Volontaires, France's auctioneering association and regulator.

Paris auction houses recently held a series of auctions that included Native American sacred objects. The next such sale took place Dec. 7 and included items of concern to several tribes. In the meeting, Jewell noted U.S. tribes' requests for greater transparency from French auction houses about the origins of objects sold.

Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, has said in the past that the Hopi will never put a price on their sacred objects and that the sale of the objects has harmed the Hopi people forever.

"We're not relics," he said in June prior to another sale of sacred objects. "We're a living culture. We have ceremonies that go back thousands of years. We bring down into our Kiva that negative thought and this is no different. It's harmed the Hopi people forever."

At the request of tribes, the U.S. Department of the Interior has worked closely with the Department of State, including the U.S. Embassy in Paris, to engage French authorities and raise public awareness. Only certain objects are considered "not for sale" by tribes, including objects that are sacred, used for religious or healing purposes, and deeply important to tribal identity.

But that has not stopped French auction houses from going forward with the auctions saying the sales merely honor Hopi and Native tribes and reflect people's love and interest in the Hopi and Native cultures.

"The blatant disregard for our voice in French court and through the media, that's what also is really causing the lack of understanding," Kuwanwisiwma said in June. "For Hopi's it's forever. That's the harm. The sale of these items, which is part of our soul, should not be happening, period."

In the meetings, Jewell also emphasized the unique legal and political relationship between the federal government and federally recognized tribes in the United States. Federally recognized tribes have their own governments within the U.S. political system, with the power to make contracts, own property, regulate their territory, to sue and be sued in court, and to appear in proceedings of administrative bodies, the same as any other sovereign nation.

It is that lack of knowledge by other countries about Native Americans which contributes to the continued sale of items that the tribes have unequivocally said harms their culture.

"They have no idea who we are," Kuwanwisiwma said. "They know absolutely nothing about the culture and how it's managed to survive. The auctions themselves contribute to the threat on the culture."

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