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Adviser Sam Tenakhongva on Katsinam Auctions in Paris: 'My Mission is Not Finished'

A Hopi cultural adviser who went to Paris to try to halt the sale of sacred katsinam says that progress is being made, but his work isn't done yet.

When Sam Tenakhongva arrived in Paris on June 10 to request the suspension of the Drouot auction and the return of the katsinam that were to be sold, it marked the first time that an offical Hopi representative had sought to block the sale of sacred Hopi friends in Paris. He had traveled there with the support of the Acoma Pueblo, and was working with the legal assistance of Pierre Ciric, a lawyer connected to the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP). Mr. Ciric, a specialist in cultural spoliation, says that he considers the "categorization of objects" into as artistic or sacred to be "a false issue: it is just a stolen affair traffic."

Ori Soltes, president of HARP, said that "beyond the legal aspect, the auction had the moral responsibility to do an investigation about the items before the sale."

RELATED:Parisian Auction House Plans to Sell More Hopi Katsinam Wednesday

Ciric has various harsh criticisms of the auction—which occurred as scheduled, despite his objections—and the French legal system's actions, but what he finds most objectionable is the issue that the Tribes were not legally recognized in France. "A Tribe is treated like a kid under 18!" he exclaimed. Ori Soltes, professor of theology, philosophy, and art history at Georgetown University, agreed that the refusal to even recognize the Tribes involved was a travesty. "The notion of the Hopi existence being delegitimized is what has been going on for hundred years," Soltes said. "And if I put myself in the shoes of the Hopis, I can only imagine how painful it must be."

Tenakhongva spoke with ICTMN about his mission to Paris.

Why were you chosen to come to Paris ?

As an adviser and a cultural leader in my village, Walpi, I work with our tribal cultural preservation office, regarding the sales and auctions, since the first one we heard of, in 2013, and have been immersed in the situation. I understand what is going on. As a Hopi community, we are collectively responsible, and have been opposed to every auction. We do not know when or how our katsinas left, but they are an important part of our life, and should be back in our communities.

Are young Hopis aware of that ?

At a certain age, they become aware. In Hopi culture, everything you learn is related to your maturity.

What did you observe during the auction ?

I noticed a conflict of interest between the auction, the auctioneer, and the Conseil des Ventes, as it seems like the expert was on the phone taking bids, and it creates a question of conflict of interest as how the auction operates. And when it came to our items, they were not shown to the crowd, like the other pieces, and the identity of the bidders was kept secretive. Then, regarding the knowledge of their experts, the pieces on the catalogue were misidentified, and misrepresented—so I would question this expertise.

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Aside from the Hopi, who would have the expertise to examine them?

Unless you grew up in the culture, and understand it, how can you call yourself an "expert"? An outsider who does it is self-appointed.

But the Eve experts presented their book—sold during the previous auction—as an official communication of their expertise, an in-depth knowledge of the Hopi culture ?

You can read, look around, and then say, "I have some knowledge." But it's wrong for someone who did not grow up in Hopi culture to declare, "I know it all."

What type of reactions did you receive during your meetings in France?

Positive ones. They understand our position a lot better now, they understand why we came. They learned, and we did too. We are getting to a point where our parties are satisfied that these auctions could be prevented in the future, if we continue to work on both ends.

Even though the tribes are not legally recognized in France, and the auction house refuses to stop?

Hopis will continue to stand up. The laws in the United States protect us. And this issue affects Indigenous cultures in the world. It is important to understand that others are also opposed to the sale of their sacred items. And though France is secular, they should respect cultures such as ours. No individual has ownership over these items in our culture; no one has permission to sell, or transfer them. So the auction should have to prove provenance or certificate, to declare that it is legal to sell them.

What about the people who argue that the pieces were sold by members of the community ?

It's alright to say that jewelry and dolls were sold. But we know the difference what's between art and crafts, and what's a higher level of religious property!

Overall, are you happy with this trip ?

We hope the sales will stop, and others will find resources and strength to speak about their opposition on their behalf, and join us in opposing any future sale. We had some good conversations. Some things happened, and some might still happen—but my mission is not finished, and will never be, until the sales stop.