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Not Again! Hopi Katsinam Auctioned in Paris Despite Outcry


Despite efforts by the U.S. Embassy, Survival International, the Holocaust art Restitution Project, and even Federal Judge Diane Humetewa, an auction of sacred Hopi katsinam has once again taken place in Paris.

On Friday, auction house EVE, which sold a number of katsinam in December over similar objections, put 29 masks up for sale in an auction that also included Navajo pieces. Only 9 of the sacred Hopi items sold, for an average price of about $20,800.

RELATED: Paris Auction House Owner: Katsinam "Not Entitled to Specific Rights"

On Thursday, a French body called the Conseil des Ventes (Board of Sales) ruled that the Hopi and other Native Tribes had no legal standing to challenge a sale on French soil. On Friday, a French judge rejected a civil suit seeking an injunction to halt the sale so that Hopi officials could inspect the items being sold. The court's decision was effectively no different than the results of challenges to previous auctions -- Thomas Banyacya Jr. of the Hopi Tribe called it "sad but predictable." 

The U.S. Embassy brought Humetewa, Hopi, an expert in Tribal law, to Paris to speak on the subject last week. Philip J. Breeden, the Embassy's minister counselor for information and cultural affairs, told the New York Times that the lectures generated interest in the issue and hoped that they would ultimately cause future buyers and sellers to reconsider such sales even though French government deems them legal. The fact that just nine of the 29 katsinam sold may be a sign that things are heading in that direction, Breeden speculated.

RELATED: Surprise! Charity Buys 21 Sacred Katsinam for Hopi at Auction in Paris

Ori Z. Soltes, chairman of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, issued a strongly-worded statement via his group's blog:

The decision by the Conseil des Ventes is both tragic and shameful. The Conseil has refused to consider the provenance information for these objects in its decision, when everyone agrees in the United States that title for these sacred masks could have never vested with subsequent possessors. Furthermore, adding insult to injury, the Conseil held that the Hopi tribe, in fact ANY Indian tribe, has no legal existence or standing to pursue any cultural claim in France. This dismissive denial of access to justice flies in the face of the progress made in international law by all tribes and indigenous peoples, as the French government had expressed its support for the legal status of indigenous peoples by its endorsement in the UN General Assembly in support of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

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Wanbli Koyake's picture
Wanbli Koyake
Submitted by Wanbli Koyake on
Hau Mitakuyepi, Greetings my Relatives, Wopila for bringing this issue of stolen Lifeway to light. It’s another crime against Life as wasicu society inflicts new trauma on the Hopi Nation; and another layer of trauma for Original Peoples everywhere in the world. Can we take comfort in the thought that the Hopi Katsinam remember the People as the People remember them. I imagine that homesickness is the worst of it for the katsinam. Such makings, carvings, are alive, according to our age-old ways of making from and for kinship in LIfe. That they are coveted by non-Hopi people valorizes the age-less power, creative power, of Hopi Lifeway/Kinship. It’s unfortunate (if not criminal) that everyone is illusioned to think of Lifeway as property, as art. Art is weak little cousin to Lifeway. Art has always looked up to Lifeway and art’s mimicry/plagiarism/cherry picking of Lifeways makings has made modern art what it is, an aggrandized artifice of artificiality, overvalued, pale imitations of Lifeway. I can see that Art can be true, beautiful, and good; but it can never be Lifeway: that is, an infinitely creative, sustainable, powerful way of making that upholds the kinship of Life. Speaking as someone who makes in an ancestral Lifeway manner (and miseducated in western art up to the graduate level) it is crucial for our survival as Original Peoples/Nations that we know the difference between Lifeway and art. It is not simply a matter of individualistic expression, abstract, symbolic meaning, as western art would have it. Our cry-baby cousin the wasicu always get what they want but being infants they don’t know about being careful what you cry for. This injustice of the wasicu antiquities markets is a spotlight on our power as Original Peoples; at the same time the weaknesses of wasicu art and culture are glaring. Wasicu kin mitakuyepi onsikapi eyas slolyepsni, My greedy relatives are pitiful but don’t know it! Hohecetu wowapi na wicoiye yelo Mitakuye Owasin, My words and written words are true! All my Relations!