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The Tricky Business of Contesting the Sale of Sacred 'Objects'

Last Friday started like any other busy day. Get the kid to school, gear up for the commute, read the news. By news I mean read the Facebook status updates.

I’d been following one news story in particular lately. It involved the upcoming auction of Hopi, Zuni and Jemez katsinam (in Zuni we say kokko) or kachina friends in Paris, France. The story had the attention of many Pueblo, museum and art people. We all wondered if a French judge would halt or delay the auction of 70 ‘objects’ on the grounds that the katsinam friends are still considered sacred cultural patrimony to the Hopi people. 

The auction house, Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou, claimed in their catalog that the collector selling their collection (who is not required to make himself publicly known), was “fascinated” by the time and energy a group of people would spend making masks that represented “among the most important Katsinam spirits of the Hopi pantheon.”

There is no shortage of questionable claims made by the auction catalog, but it did get something right. “The Hopi Indians still practice ritual ceremonies to mark the seasons.” About the collector, the catalog stated “by his own admission, you have to see the masks in dances to fully appreciate them.”

Earlier in the month I shared the ICTMN story about the katsinam friends up for auction as a concerned Zuni Pueblo member. As a museum nerd and NAGPRA enthusiast I pondered the use of national laws on the international level to bring our sacred beings home. Immediately after sharing the link, like-minded friends, Native and non, echoed my concerns.

A corrected image from the auction catalog.

One of the concerns came from Curtis, a high school mate and fellow museum nerd/professional. He reminded me that while my questions were valid, he asked if ICTMN could blur the image of the kokko friends associated with the article. In my haste to share my outrage at the upcoming auction and to help spread the disturbing news with my corner of the Facebook-o-sphere I forgot some basic rules about the kokkos in the pictures.

The first rule of the katsinam or kokko friends: they are not for sale.

Second first rule: don’t take pictures of them. Ever.

Third first rule: they belong in their homes within the Pueblos, with the people and groups responsible for their care. Always.

The story I shared featured an image of two kokko friends that were up for auction. They were propped up on metal stands with the standard museum-photograph gray background. They were presented as art.

There was no fine grit of desert dirt that floated through the air when the kokkos entered the village. There were no wisps of burning cedar carrying food to our ancient ones or newly passed relatives. There was no telltale trail of cornmeal sprinkled in welcome and blessings drawn into lungs. All context was missing. They were presented as art instead of the sacred, living beings that they are and all that they represent to us.

The next day several Pueblo people sent emails and voiced concern over the images and out of respect, ICTMN immediately pulled the images. The media coverage continued and grew. The photos remained in other online spaces, including the auction house’s catalog.

Pueblo leaders, lawyers, citizens and concerned supporters of the kokko friends flooded the auctioneer’s email inboxes. The US Embassy in France contacted the auction house requesting a delay of the auction in order to completely review the situation. A petition was started on calling for the halt of the auction and the immediate repatriation of the kokko friends.

The New York Times arts blog began running updates. The Associate Press reported on the calls of support and on a petition filed in a French court on behalf of the Hopi by their pro-bono attorneys requesting the auction be delayed while the case was reviewed. Robert Redford of the Hollywood Clan called the proposed auction in his opinion “a sacrilege — a criminal gesture that contains grave moral repercussions.”

The authorities at Interpol were contacted and strongly encouraged to use the US mandate of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, French laws and international conventions and documents that are supposed to protect against the theft, removal and subsequent sale of sacred objects of cultural and national patrimony.

Pueblo people have no doubt the kokko friends are 1. sacred and 2. cultural patrimony, meaning the kokko friends belong with the group and are not ‘owned’ by any individual, no matter their place in the world.

The kokko friends do not recognize international borders. If they have been stolen or removed from their home communities they are not ‘walking in two worlds.’ They remain sacred beings wherever they are and as sacred beings require the utmost care by those knowledgeable and responsible for their care. 

The auction house remained firm that they believed the collector did not steal the katsinam and reminded the world that one country's laws have no jurisdiction over individuals and companies in another country. The auctioneers went even further to say that they believed the Hopi should consider the interest in the collection an ”homage to the Hopi” and that the Hopi should be "happy that so many people want to understand and analyze their civilization." (Note to self: learn how to say WTF and WTF-ever in French.)

Last Friday the judge agreed with the auction house: NAGPRA does not apply in France. The UNDRIP is an aspirational document, meaning it contains rights for Indigenous peoples that France agrees with in theory, but has not put into legal motion within its borders or laws. The auction went ahead as planned.

Describing the “chaos” in the auction room the Associated Press reported on the reactions from the crowd. Some shouted out in protest and were escorted out of the room. Others ooh’d and aah’d over the kokko friends “of most interest” -- these friends ultimately sold for three times the auctioneer's estimated value.

Last Friday was a cold, rainy day in Seattle. Indeed it was a sad, dark day for Pueblo peoples everywhere. All Indigenous groups shared the pain of knowing the kokko friends were sold to the highest bidder and scattered around the globe - we have seen our sacred beings, relatives and embodiments of spirits sold in this manner for decades. 

I used to work in a Native arts gallery in Tucson. I quickly learned potential buyers of Native art want a story to go with their purchase. The better the story, the quicker the sale. The articulate pleas to stop the auction and return the kokko friends created a dramatic stage for the auction. The kokko friends sold in the auction have tribal, museum professional and legal protests, Hollywood big-wigs, and the international press telling a passionate story.

It’s a disgusting and disturbing realization that our collective efforts to stop the auction increased the visibility of the kokko friends and most likely contributed to their swift sale at higher-than-expected prices.

Hopi tribal member Sam Tenakhongva reflected on the sadness of the situation and shared his thoughts with KUYI Hopi Radio. He reminded himself that they “stood for and fought for something that only we can understand, cherish and give respect to.” That they brought “to light an issue no one wants to discuss nor face.” He reminded himself that the Hopi “must move forward in a positive manner, to love and cherish one another and hopefully the struggle and fight we put up is not one that is taken in vain.”

Mr Tenakhongva also reflected that the it is up to us as Pueblo people to teach our children about the sacredness of the kokko friends, what they represent to us and what knowledge we share with the world. We are collectively responsible for passing on “principles such as respect, discipline, value, sacredness, patience and understanding and how we as Hopi treat our own knowledge and religion.”

I agree with him. We are collectively responsible for teaching our children what it is to be Pueblo. If we claim in international courts that cultural patrimony cannot be bought or sold by any one individual then we can’t expect any one individual to be responsible for the protection of our ways of life, being and knowing. It is a responsibility that begins at home and belongs to us all.

Miranda Belarde-Lewis (Zuni, Tlingit) belongs to the Takdeintáan of the Tlingit Nation, is born for the Corn Clan in Zuni Pueblo, and is a PhD Candidate at the University of Washington.