It has become a heartbreakingly familiar scenario: dozens of sacred Native American items on the auction block. This one took place in Paris on December 7, led by Eve auction house, at the Salle Drouot, even as Indigenous Peoples gathered to discuss saving our planet at the United Nations COP21 climate talks.
Waleha Johns, Diné from the Black Mesa Water Coalition, was in town as part of the COP21 indigenous delegation and felt obliged to attend and tell the audience how the sale made her feel. She did so in her silent, but persuasive way—by sitting there, in regalia, making a statement just by her presence. Johns also made her point in a more direct way, confronting a buyer as the person exited the sale. But the sales marched on, with a second auction taking place on December 16. After the first auction Johns sat down with Indian Country Today Media Network to explain the intimate relationship between harmony, balance, esthetics, environment and health, and the impact of the loss of those sacred objects.
What made you decide to attend the auction?
I had heard about the auctions through people who attended them in order to retrieve items back for us, and from others; and I was at COP21, with the indigenous delegation. So I decided to go, as the matter has been going on for a long time.
Was it your first time at an auction? How did you feel?
Yes, it was the first time I had ever been to an auction. Friends were demonstrating and singing on the street, in front of the entrance, and someone told me I could not get in, as a Native. So I said, “Just watch me!“ and went in. [Laughs.] The head of security showed me to the room, where I saw a lot of Hopi masks and Kachimas. I stayed until the end of the North American Native sale, witnessing all the items being sold over the phone and in the room. It hurt to see those very old sacred Hopi, Navajo, Lakota items, from the fifteenth century, auctioned: a Navajo bundle, moccasins, a pipe, sacred items with spirit and power used in ceremonies…. Seeing them sold like art pieces made me sad and mad. I followed outside a person who had bought a mask and told her that as a buyer, she should tell [the person she was buying for] that this item is sacred for the tribes, and to give it back to them, as those pieces miss their home. They want to go back!
How did this buyer respond?
That she had no idea, she was just there to buy on behalf of someone. She looked concerned, and asked, “What should I do?” So I said, “Those masks do not belong to you or your buyer, they are craving to go back home, you should send them back.”
Were you the only Native American person in the room? How did the audience react to your presence?
Yes, I was, and the audience knew I was Native American. I was wearing my traditional outfit. People were staring at me, as I kept shaking my head every time something was sold, like, “This is not right,” a kind of statement without saying anything. I could not believe what I was seeing.
Wasn’t being present at the auction already a statement?
Well…. I went to observe this market, as I had heard about it. But yes, I did make a statement: It was demeaning that they are sold like art, since each item is a spirit.
Were those objects familiar to you, and to the people, as they are probably still used for medicine ceremonies?
Oh yes, totally! Also, they had a description for every one of them, in a glossy book, describing exactly what they were selling for, 30 000 euros and over—a whole market of sacred items, treated as art. It would be like selling one of the oldest Bibles as an art piece. And all the items were sold. And of course, the people know and understand those objects; that is why the items need to be sent back, let the tribes decide how to deal with them, because they belong to their homeland. Every object has a significance: to a clan, to a family, for a ceremony, for harmony, balance…. They all have a power, a spirit, and are homesick in captivity, far from their homeland. When you have an understanding of ceremonial ways, it makes you upset and sad. As Native people, our life ways have always been exploited. This is just another stage of exploitation: of our ceremonies, and cultural ways that give us balance and harmony. So all tribes should take a stand to get the items back; it does not happen just in France. There is a need for a working group to bring the items back, and we should be highly concerned as tribal members and leaders: as this is going on for a long time, and it affects our health.
How does it affect your health?
All those items, now far away from us, mean something to us. I read in that book, during the auction, that some Kachimas help bring rain. Now they are sitting in someone’s home, like “art.” So… If this Kachima comes home, maybe will it rain more.