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Sacred Native American masks go on sale in Paris - in spite of tribal protests

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
April 12th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

In spite of protests from Native American Hopi tribesmen, in addition to international efforts, the auction of 70 sacred Hopi masks will proceed at the elegant Hotel Drouot in Paris.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The Arizona-based tribe protested the sale. Survival International, a London-based association that defends indigenous populations filed a court action in France. However, a Parisian judge ruled on Friday to allow the event to proceed.

French lawyer Pierre Servan-Schreiber told reporters that "It's very odd that there are 70 masks that end up in the hands of a collector.

"We're not saying they were obtained illegally, but given American and international laws that forbid the sale or exportation of such objects, there are questions that must be raised and answered. Once the sale is completed, we'll lose track of the masks. It will be too late."

Servan adds that "These are not decorative masks . They are [according to Hopi culture] something that connects the world of the living to the spiritual world."

There are 18,000 Hopi Indians spread out around 12 towns in northern Arizona. The masks, constructed out of leather or wood and ornamented with horsehair or paint, as art, but rather as living beings that never should have left their native land.

"[The masks] personify spirits, called 'Kachinas,' which are thought to bring rain or encourage fertility," anthropologist Patrick Perez, the author of a book on the Hopi Indians of Arizona, says. "They are used in a religious context."

The auction sale, Perez says amounts to sacrilege, and is the cause of genuine suffering among members of the tribe. "They feel awful about this. They are responsible [for the masks] and are supposed to guard them," Perez said.

"Now they believe that because of this auction, there may be less rain this year or fewer children born, or more disease. Imagine if we collected Eucharist's [Christian communion wafers] and put them up for auction. These are living rituals."

In response, French auction house Néret-Minet Tessier says that the collection of the masks was acquired legally by a French citizen who lived for more than 30 years in the U.S.

"The claim that Hopi cultural patrimony is exclusively their property has no legal basis according to French law," the auction house told French press agency Agence France-Presse. "They're building their case around an article of the Hopi Constitution, which is not recognized in France because the tribe is not a state or country in and of itself."

However - according to the federal NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) of 1990 formally requires all Native American cultural items to be returned to the appropriate tribe, and the type of auction set to take place in France is strictly forbidden.


 

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