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NMAI Tells Press: Stop Paris Auction of Sacred Items and Human Remains

Stop The Paris Auction! NMAI holds emergency press conference for Paris auction of human remains and sacred Native items on Monday.

National Museum of the American Indian officials, U.S. government officials and tribal leaders converged in Washington’s NMAI today to hold an emergency press conference regarding the sale of human remains and Native sacred objects scheduled for Monday, Memorial Day, May 30th through the Eve Auction house in Paris, France.

Officials at the press conference included top officials from The Acoma Pueblo Nation; The Hoopa Valley Tribal Nation; U.S.Congressman Steve Pearce (2nd District, NM); U.S. Department of State; U.S.Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs; National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Association of American Indian Affairs.

UPDATE: Within hours of the Press Conference - #StopTheParisAuction began trending on Twitter.

At the opening of the press conference NMAI Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee), said the NMAI was instructed to return sacred items when they were formed in 1989.

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“This museum was established in 1989. As part of our authorizing legislation, as enacted by the Congress, The Smithsonian was directed to return to the Native nations of the United States, certain items that were within our collections. That included human remains … and it included sacred objects. The position of the United States on this matter is well established.

Unfortunately, the reach of the laws of the United States ends at the borders,” continued Gover who said it was unfortunate that the items up for auction in Paris had made their way into the hands of collectors during an unfortunate time in history.

U.S.Congressman Steve Pearce (2nd District, New Mexico) said that in New Mexico, ‘When we find that culturally significant items are for sale, then we all say ‘Why?’

Pearce says his office created House Concurrent Resolution 122, entitled Protection of the Right of Tribes to stop the Export of Cultural and Traditional Patrimony. Pearce says the French have not been responsive in regards to the matter, but says there has been support from the State Department, the BIA, and tribal nations.

Acoma Pueblo Nation Governor Kurt Riley and traditional leader Conroy Chino shared an emotional appeal for the auction to stop.

“I come today on the behalf of my people to talk about the illegal death sale of our sacred cultural items. Acoma has thrived for thousands of years because of cultural and traditional beliefs … our spiritual practices include the use of sacred objects, including the Acoma shield, which is due to be auctioned off to the highest bidder in Paris on Monday,” said Riley.

"The Acoma shield is a sacred item that no individual can own, it is not intended for commercial use or that is created for artistic value. The item was created to be used in specific Acoma ceremonies for the benefit of our community.

Under Pueblo of Acoma law, this item would have been cared for by its caretaker with an absolute ban on its sale or transfer outside of the Pueblo. How it left the Pueblo we do not know. The fact it’s mere existence is outside the Pueblo tells us that an event occurred that violated Pueblo of Acoma law.

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For this reason I call upon the Eve auction house to immediately cease the sale of the Acoma Shield and all other items of cultural patrimony and I implore the Republic of France to take immediate forceful action to stop this,” he said.

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Governor Riley began speaking his Native language, and turned emotional. He said his emotion was a demonstration of how important this issue was to him and his people.

“Thank you for the opportunity to speak on behalf of my people. When my items leave our Pueblo, this is how much it hurts,” he said.

Hoopa Valley Tribal Nation Council members Bradley Marshall and Leilani Pole then shared how their tribe was affected adversely by the Gold Rush.

“We saw our sacred items hauled off by the wagon loads,” said Marshall. “These objects are not just some part of a fancy collection, they are living beings to us. They are part of our families. They have a sacred purpose in our community.”

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“One of these items is up for auction on Monday. We hope one day this member of our community can return to us.”

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Mark Taplin said, “This type of commercialization of Native American property is fundamentally wrong.”

Acting Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Lawrence Roberts said,” this is an issue that has gone on far too long. We stand with the Acoma Pueblo in asking the Eve Auction House to stop the sale on Monday. We will continue to stand with all tribes.”

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The video archive to the NMAI press conference is available to view here.

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