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'Enough Is Enough!' Says Lawyer Who Tried to Stop Katsinam Auction

An interview with lawyer Pierre Servan-Schreiber, who tried, unsuccessfully, to stop an auction of sacred Hopi katsinam in Paris.

It happened, again -- a Parisian auction house went ahead with its plans to auction sacred Hopi katsinam yesterday, December 9, despite efforts from concerned tribal members and others to stop the sale. 

Although it's unlikely that such a sale could happen within the borders of the United States, art markets abroad aren't beholden to U.S. laws and considerations. The spiritual value of the katsinam (commonly called "masks" by non-Natives) for the Hopis is totally ignored within the context of a secular and rational culture -- the katsinam are simply objects that can be bought and sold like any other. Lawyer Pierre Servan-Scheiber, who was once again enlisted by Survival International to make the case against the sale to a French judge, explains how this process could evolve, so that “one day”, changes could occur. 

What is your perception of this new auction, compared to the last one: any changes?

There was less media coverage, because this time, the Hopis did not wish to communicate, as we lost last time when it was more heavily covered. Also, I assume that they might have thought such coverage allowed the katsinam to be sold at a high price, and it would raise their price, again. But this time, we only requested to set aside 25 Hopi katsinam out of 400 pieces; for the previous sale, we asked the cancelation of the whole auction. So with only 6% of the auction off, the consequences for the auctioneer are not the same. Also, I changed my approach at that second hearing. I focused on the following question I raised with the judge: "Are there enough issues raised here to warrant suspending the sale of the 25 Hopi Katsinas and let us argue the whole matter in court later with both sides presenting all their arguments on the merits

As a matter of fact, the auctioneer Alain Leroy said on TV, that the root of the claim was "religious" and therefore not "valid in France." So that is the fundamental question, isn't it -- this conflict between a secular society like France, with little belief in magic or the symbolic value of the pieces, as opposed to the United States's vision? Here in France, we are so rooted in the culture of Descartes, and a rational way of thinking, that we do not have the notion of the consequences of the spiritual in our lives. After all, laws depend on cultural beliefs, don't they?

Yes, this is interesting, and should be debated in front of a tribunal. Even in a secular country like France: Is it a sufficient reason to not take into account the beliefs of other people's culture, within a legal perspective? So the question is really relevant. And it is precisely the question: In a deeply secular country, how do we deal with the spiritual dimension, when considering the interests of different people? But from a legal point of view, it did not impact the case.

But then, what about the issue of art stolen from the Jewish people during World War II, which was recently in the news -- the idea that the art represents part of the Jewish memory, and refers to loss and genocide. Couldn't the same be said for the Native American art and its association with genocide? Jewish people have their claims, so could it not apply to the Natives the same way?

Absolutely, and I mentioned it yesterday: Let us not forget that the Native American genocide is one of the most important ones ever to take place! And if ever we plead one day, those would be the reasons, beyond the beliefs. Enough is enough! After having massacred the Native Americans, placed them in reservations, submitted them to a quasi-proletarian economic environment, ostracized them, is it not possible, today, to leave them in peace, and let them have their katsinas? So certainly, this is the underlying issue.

About your trip to Hopi, to return the katsinam from the previous auction -- did you finally ride your motorcycle from Flagstaff to the reservation, as planned initially? How did your trip go ?

I took three days to ride by motorcycle from Flagstaff to the village! And my hotel was a hundred kilometers away from the village, so riding twice a day, I was able to really look around. When I arrived at Flagstaff airport, two Hopi women were waiting for me, and they burst into tears, when they saw the backpack in which I was carrying the katsina with me. They then blessed me and the katsina and fed it with with corn flour. Landing from Paris, I was impressed! Later, during lunch, a Hopi man burst into tears again… When I gave back the katisnam, they fed them, and so did I. All those moments were moving. I was very well hosted, with emotion and dignity.

Driving around, discovering that landscape, did you get a sense of the relationship between the katsinam and their land, how they fit into that space, the esthetics?

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Certainly! Riding back from the mesas, that evening, at sunset, some big clouds appeared and a little rain came down -- the landscape was outstanding, huge, with the clouds, the rain, the smell of the sage, the cedar. A fantastic sunset. I was deeply moved, and thought, it is impossible to be born here, in such an environment, and not to believe. Realizing then the link between their beliefs and nature, feeling the spiritual dimension, how it imposes itself to men. But it is really during the home dance, that I understood the essence of the katsinam. I arrived in the village at 5:30 in the morning, the sun was coming up, and 50 dancers were coming out from the kiva -- it was an impressive scene! And the dances went on all day, different each time, with very subtle differences, of costumes, feathers, and colors. Observing that feeling of communion among the Hopis, that intense awareness, but in a simple, relaxed way -- a very natural form of faith, inherent to their life. I was moved and impressed.

So your spontaneous impulse, when you bought a katisna, led you to an inner journey?

Yes -- and I thought it would. It has been an important spiritual encounter. One day, I was driving my motorcycle through a forest, west of the mesas. These trails were wholly inadequate for my Harley, so I wondered about the risks, but then I felt protected; and, rather than turning around, I kept riding for two hours, alone in the forest, but feeling very calm. I felt as if someone were whispering to me, saying “ it will be ok”.

Did you face any problems with the transportation of the Katsina ?

No, as I had informed the embassy, and Homeland Security. At arrival, the custom employee asked me why I was carrying it, so I explained him, and with a big smile, he told me, “Go ahead” !

So what should be done to progress? Do the Hopis carry a message?

Aside from legal proceedings, it is necessary to talk about it, to the auctioneers, the media, the museums, et cetera. To explain that we do not wish to close the museums, but merely to protect the soul of a people that is very alive today. And the Hopis just wish to be left in peace, with their katsinam; they do not wish to talk. They just want their katsinam back. They thought there has been too much media, but then, speaking about it created a consciousness, and even drove some people who had listened to the news and the debates to spontaneously send back their katsinam -- so I believe that, overall, media exposure is a positive thing.

How do you see the future?

One day, we will present our case to a full court, in a non-emergency situation, without the obligation of an immediate decision. Eventually, French courts, or government, or public opinion, or all of them, will realize that, in the times in which we live, not everything should be allowed to be bought and sold, that we are men before being consumers or collectors. It might not happen soon, as it is a political issue. We will have to ask, how far do we go? Do we include all the Native tribes of North America? And if so, then South America? And so on -- but even if we do, this will only represent a tiny percentage of all art sales across the world and, therefore, it should not be a problem.

But France being secular, will it not always be argued that it is just "art " -- and thereare no limitations on the sale of art?

Absolutely; yes, the secular aspect will remain, of course, and we will have to face it.

But we have to keep faith: it is an uphill battle, but well worth fighting!