The late Joe Dassin, an American-born French pop star, among his gold records in an undated photo

The Pop Star and the Hopi Katsinam: A Little Help From Joe Dassin

Dominique Godreche
May 14, 2013

In the days leading up to the April 12 auction in Paris of Hopi katsinam (commonly referred to as "masks") some observers wondered whether there might be a peaceful resolution that would result in the return of the sacred items to the tribe without upending French law. Perhaps the Hopi themselves could purchase the katsinam, or those sympathetic to the tribe's concerns could step in and do so. That didn't fully happen, although a couple of katsinam were purchased for the tribe. One was bought by Pierre Servan Schreiber, the lawyer who argued in a French court, unsuccessfully, that the auction should be delayed or prevented.

Another of the katsinam was bought for the Hopi by Richelle Dassin, sister of the late Joe Dassin -- a name that might not mean much to most readers on Turtle Island. But Joe Dassin is a towering figure in the history of French pop music, and an artist who had great success on the pop charts in numerous other countries. He was never a star in the United States, where he was born, although his music, particularly his 1969 hit "Les Champs-Elysees," is a must-play in high school French classes everywhere. Joe Dassin died in 1980 at the age of 41.

Richelle Dassin plans to return the katsinam to its people on a future trip to Hopi. ICTMN spoke with her about her decision to pay this unconventional tribute to her famous brother.

How did you decide to buy a katsinam at the Neret-Minet auction?

Alain Giraud, an old friend of my brother, called me one morning saying, “buy the Herald Tribune today, and read the article about the Hopi masks!”  And there was this story about the auction, on the first page, saying that the Hopis could not stop the auction, because of the lack of laws… Then, he asked me, “don’t you think we should buy a mask in the name of Joe?" And instantly, I said yes, agreeing with his proposition. So, my first motivation was related to the fact that the auction was an issue of money and power, and I did not like that. And then I wished to see if we could help, by protecting the masks. I always had an interest in traditional cultures, and in the people who have kept  connections to their land and cultures; which I hope the Hopis have.  I feel respect for the living cultures, who have managed to survive for so long.

When my brother was young,  he studied anthropology at [the University of Michigan] in the United States, and he wrote his thesis on the Hopi.

And finally, a book of short stories written by my brother came out recently in France, translated by Alain Giraud and me. Because Joe was a writer before he became a singer. And later, I used to write songs for him. So both Alain and I spontaneously decided to buy the mask, having some money from translating that book, and wishing to do that gesture in the name of my brother, because of his relation to the Hopi.

That is how, in his memory, I bought a mask. It was really all very related to my brother, with Alain Giraud, who had attended the university with Joe. And I wish to add: If I could, I would buy the virgin forest, so that nobody would cut it down, and people could live there in their own way; but since I cannot buy the virgin forest, I thought at least I could buy a mask!

Why was your brother interested in the Hopi?

I do not know why. We were brought up in America, where I lived until I was ten.  We went back and forth, between France and the U.S., and we traveled a lot; my mother had a house outside Palm Springs, in the Mojave Desert. Joe studied anthropology out of curiosity, to find out how people live, and I guess the Hopi were his preference.

How did you decide which katsinam to buy?

I did not go to the sale, as I was not in France. Alain Giraud chose a "mud clown," according to our budget, and because he liked it. And I really do too. It is a clown, I like his personality. He is laughing: he is not called a clown for nothing. I was joyful when I saw him, and we were happy to acquire it. 

What do you expect from your trip to Hopi?

Well, maybe I have an idealized vision, as I know many Indians suffered, and lost their culture at certain times; but I am hoping to see that some are holding their culture, and something sacred is preserved. Also, I love America, and the landscape,  and we hope to do a little journey; it is an adventure!



Masks's picture
Submitted by Masks on

I am sure the Hopi elders who have and still hold on to Hopi traditions will welcome it back, but it is no longer the mask it was when it was made and used, therefore it may just end up in a box or displayed at some cultural center. In the hands of the youth, it will end of on sale in Phoenix or worse, ebay. The gesture is a good one and its too bad the Hopi let the masks go in the first place, or this might have never occurred.