Paris Judge To Decide Legality Of Hopi Artifact Sale

April 10, 2013

Photo by Laurel Morales
A Katsina depicted in a mural at the Museum of Northern Arizona

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Northern Arizona tribes are following news of a Paris auction house that wants to put 70 artifacts sacred to the Hopi people up for sale. A hearing today Thursday will determine the legality of the sale. Hopi leaders say the objects belong on the reservation.

This story contains language sensitive to the Hopi people. The tribe doesn’t even want us to describe what the sacred objects are. But if we didn't, it would raise more questions.

The Hopi call them “Katsina friends” and to them they are living beings. To the outside world they are tribal masks. When a Hopi puts one on for a ceremony, he becomes a Katsina spirit.

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.

Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa said they should only be used in Hopi ceremonies, not displayed as art.

"It’s demeaning in that it’s attacking a way of worship that we have had for time immemorial," Shingoitewa said.

Shingoitewa said it would be as if he walked into a church, stole a cross and used it as a fencepost.

The tribe has successfully repatriated similar items from museums in the United States with the help of a 1990 cultural heritage law. That law cannot help the tribe outside the U.S.

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.

For its part the Néret-Minet auction house in Paris said all the items were obtained legally from a collector. Art expert Eric Geneste works for the auction house and said they have papers proving they were purchased from a gallery.

But Geneste also said no one knows how the items originally left the reservation.