Native Sun News: Hopi Tribe fights to stop sale of sacred items

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Managing Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Hopi request denied: Auction of sacred relics moves forward
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Managing Editor

RAPID CITY—The auction of 70 masks that are considered highly sacred to the Hopi people was allowed to take place in Paris after a French judge refused to step in on behalf of the tribe. The auction which took place Friday, April 12, 2013 gained national attention as the Hopi nation fought tooth and nail to prevent it from taking place.

The court made note that the Hopis did hold “sacred value” to the objects but ended up ruling that the value the tribe had placed on the masks did not allow the court to deem them as elements of a human body. The Hopi believe that the sacred objects are living beings and attempted to articulate this belief to the court. The court however was unwilling to accommodate the religious understandings of the tribe and would not assimilate the Hopis traditional understandings into a legal ruling that would have essentially classified the masks as human. In France the sale of elements of the human body is prohibited.

The failure of the court to recognize the beliefs of the Hopi is a continuation of a long history of western-European courts showing an unwillingness to place significant value on the religious beliefs of Indigenous people.

“It is just hard for a non-practitioner to make these decisions and determinations of what the value and sacredness these objects have for the Hopi,” said Sam Tenakhongva a leader from the Walti Village, of the Hopi Nation. It is upsetting for the Hopi and it is upsetting for people around the world,” he added.

There has been speculation from tribal members and by those that were advocating on behalf of the tribes that the masks were acquired illegally, however, there was never any substantial evidence presented to prove these claims. In the U.S. the Native American Graves and Repatriation act may have been able to provide some relief for the Hopi however the law only applies domestically within the U.S.

“There are no provisions banning the sale outside the United States of objects used in religious ceremonies or likely to be applicable in France,” the court said in regards to NAGPRA.

On Thursday, April 11, a day before the auction the U.S. Embassy wrote a letter asking the court to delay their decision until proper analysis of the Hopi’s opposition could take place, however the request fell on deaf ears and the auction was allowed to proceed. The auction of the masks netted nearly $1.2 million.

The auction house Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou, where the sale of the masks took place had stated that they had reached out to the tribe to consult with the prior to the auction, however they did not respond to any correspondence from the Hopi.

“It bothered me to read the statement they made. We sent letters to them over a month prior to the auction and we never heard anything from them,” said Tenakhongva.

The reaction from the tribe has been one of disgust and sadness however some tribal members including Sam Tenakhongva feel that the auction raised awareness about the exploitation of Indigenous cultural and religious items is common and opposed by tribes.

“I think it is a step that needed to be taken. Throughout the entire case the media attention on it has been that the Hopi were opposed to it and made it known,” he said. “The Hopi have stepped forward and brought awareness to the fact that these things are going on and that Indigenous people around the world are being exploited,” added Tenakhongva.

Other tribal members were not measured in their response to the auction. Melissa Pochoema an enrolled member of the Hopi nation and a well-known fashion model expressed her sadness with the sale of the masks.

“From the time we are born and come of age, the Kachinas are better known as our friends, and are what helps us become a well-rounded person. They teach us how to respect all living things as well as how to go about our ceremonies. Our friends are a part of us and are a part of the Hopi/ Tewa way of living. To see them being sold with no understanding of what they mean to the people, is truly a loss that brings a lot of heartache and sadness” said Pochoema. “It is like someone cutting a part of you and saying you have no meaning in this world. Just to see someone put a price on culture is unbearable,” she added.

Prior to the masks being sold the AP reported that the auctioneer alluded to the fact that the objects were no longer sacred but were now simply pieces of art. A sentiment that many Indigenous people have taken issue with.

“Unless you are Hopi or a practitioner it would be hard to have an understanding of their value. It is our hope and dream that they would be taken care of properly by those who bought them, but unless you are a practitioner it would be something that would be extremely difficult to do” said Tenakhongva.

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Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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