This Story Contains Sensitive Language: Who Do Disclaimers Protect?

April 13, 2013

Photo by Laurel Morales
The tribe says Katsina dolls can be sold. A doll is typically given to a young girl at a public ceremony as a blessing and part of her education.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- For the last several days I’ve been reporting on a Paris auction house that sold sacred Hopi items Friday. The tribe tried to stop the sale, saying they were stolen and belonged on its reservation in northern Arizona.

In order to explain why the tribe did not want the items sold, I had to tell people what they were. When the news of this sale first hit the Internet, photos of the ceremonial objects were all over the web. And the "m-word" was also all over Twitter and various stories by well-respected reporters writing for distinguished media organizations.

The tribe was upset but knew it was important to put public pressure on the auction house. They issued a statement:

In reference to the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction, currently scheduled for April 12 in France, in which the Hopi Tribe is trying to stop the sale of Hopi sacred objects:

These sacred objects should be referred to only as sacred objects. Incorrectly labeling them is very disrespectful to the entire American Indian community and the Hopi Tribe.

It is also highly offensive and disrespectful to the Hopi Tribe for any images of the sacred objects to appear in print, on television or online.

In the release they listed two words they don’t want reporters using.

I made a promise to Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, the director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. He said he would talk with me if I did not use these words. He said Hopi children cannot know what they are. So in my first story where I featured Kuwanwisiwma, I didn’t use those words.

I said: "The Hopi call them Katsina friends and they are treated as such. The Hopi people use them in ceremonies and dances to call upon the spirits to bring them rainfall, healing and protection."

After the story aired, I heard it left more questions than answers. Everyone I talked to wanted to know what the sacred items were.

So the next story I did was a feature for NPR. I immediately told my editor about my dilemma. He said, "You’re not an advocate for the tribe. You can explain that they don’t want us using these words, but you need to approach this from an anthropological stance."

So I went ahead reporting the story, trying to find a way to explain what these items are without saying what they are.

Photo by Laurel Morales
The Hopi Tribal Council and Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa (center) speak to reporters at the Museum of Northern Arizona to put pressure on the auction house.

I spoke with the Hopi chairman and council at a press event and they were steadfast. I asked in several different ways and I’m pretty sure I offended them in my persistence. I said other religions have had their items sold. How is this different? The chairman finally said, it would be as if he went into a church, stole a cross and used it as a fence post. That was helpful, but it still didn’t say what the items were.

I talked to my husband about it. He said, “it’s like telling them who Santa Claus is.” I told him I don’t think Hopis would use that analogy, but I thought he was kind of right.

So I asked Robert Breunig, director of the Museum of Northern Arizona, for help. He’s an anthropologist who has been going to Hopi dances for 40 years. He is very sensitive to the tribe’s privacy. I shared with him the Santa Claus analogy. And he said, “That’s exactly what it is. That’s trivializing it, but (unlike Santa) the Katsinas are real.”

So my solution: I started the story with a disclaimer.

"This story contains language so sensitive to the Hopi people that the tribe doesn’t even want us to describe what the sacred objects are."

If people want to turn off their radios, they can. At least I’ve warned them.

My editor said NPR only uses that disclaimer when it reports on sexual violence. I told him, I live here. I cannot live with myself and use these words if we don’t have at least a disclaimer. Also, I talk to the Hopi Tribe often for stories. I cannot burn bridges.

I also asked NPR to remove from its website a photo of a sacred object in its disembodied form and replace it with one of the photos I had taken of the Katsina dolls, which are allowed to be sold and displayed.

I still have received a few complaints.

But I hope the tribe understands, in order to tell the story I had to explain the gravity of the situation — why they were so important, why they shouldn’t be displayed as art, and why they were going to such great lengths to keep these objects to themselves.

In the end I don’t know what is more painful for the tribe — to have the items sold or to have their photos and descriptions all over the media.