FLAGSTAFF - An Arizona tribe is asking a Paris auction house to cancel its upcoming sale of dozens of items central to the tribe's religious practices and return them to their original homes.
Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou describes the collection on its website as katsina masks of the Hopi Indians of Arizona. They are scheduled to be auctioned April 12, with some expected to garner tens of thousands of dollars each.
To the Hopis, they are living beings called katsina friends that emerge from the earth and sky to connect people to the spiritual world and their ancestors. Every member of the Hopi Tribe gets initiated into the Katsina society as a rite of passage.
Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the tribe's cultural preservation office, said the religious items should be in the hands of the American Indian tribes from which they were taken, including the pueblos of Jemez, Acoma and Zuni in New Mexico.
The sale of such items isn't extraordinary, but the size of the collection to be auctioned in Paris and the age of the items is, Kuwanwisiwma said.
The majority of the 70 katsina friends are labeled as Hopi and date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "A lot of these objects were collected under suspicious conditions," Kuwanwisiwma said.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act would protect such items in the U.S., but the law doesn't extend to France. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, signed by France, might be used as leverage, according to the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
An email sent to Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou was not returned immediately, and the auction house declined comment when contacted by a reporter Wednesday.
Jose Viarreal, editor of the website artdaily.org, said he contacted the auction house and was told the items were obtained legally. "I think this is going to go through as planned," Viarreal said.
Kuwanwisiwma said the tribe would not bid on the objects: "Culturally ... there's no price tag on our ceremonial and religious objects. That's pretty much out of the question."