Navajo Nation Buys Back 7 Sacred Masks at Controversial Parisian Auction

The Navajo Nation has bought sacred masks at an auction in Paris following the auction house's refusal to delay or cancel the sale.
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In what has become an all-too-familiar and all-too-disappointing scenario, a Parisian auction house put sacred Native American objects on the block despite strenuous objections from Tribes. In the past, the controversial sales involved Hopi katsinam, often referred to by those outside of Hopi culture as "masks." A number of those, from Hopi and other Pueblo Tribes, were sold in Monday's auction; efforts by the U.S. Embassy and lawyer Pierre Servan Schreiber to stop or at least delay the sale were in vain.

This auction included sacred Navajo items as well, and the Navajo Nation chose to send a delegation to Paris to try to buy them back from the Drouot auction house. Led by Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim, and organized by Speaker Pro Tem LoRenzo Bates, the Navajo group purchased seven masks used for the Nightway Chant ceremony, which occurs in winter. (Note: While the Hopi strongly object to the word "mask," ICTMN uses it here to refer to Navajo items, following the lead of the Navajo Nation Council's press release announcing the purchase.) 

RELATED:Not Again! Hopi Katsinam Auctioned in Paris Despite Outcry

The Hopi Tribe did not attempt to buy the katsinam being auctioned, on grounds that the seller cannot own, and therefore cannot sell, the katsinam. Neither of the two approaches is satisfying—while the Navajo are now in possession of their items, as Nation spokesman Deswood Tome told the AP, "buying these masks here today is a precedent that we've set."

There are signs that the selling of sacred items in France is becoming more controversial. One is that the informational page for the auction at the EVE website takes the very defensive step of justifying the sale with a quote from (and link to) an article about the issue from the Hopi Tutuveni newspaper. Navajo Speaker Pro Tem Bates voiced another cause for optimism in the Navajo Nation Council's press release:

"It was clear that the French people are becoming more and more aware of Navajo people’s concern over the respect for Navajo human rights and it was evident by the news agencies and organizations that came out to the auction to seek Navajo Nation input."

RELATED:"Enough Is Enough!" Says Lawyer Who Tried to Stop Katsinam Auction