AP Photo/Francois Mori

Interior Secretary Jewell Discusses Repatriation With French Ahead of Next Auction


The 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) is underway in Paris, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has already led a panel discussion on climate resilience. Climate change was not the only topic Jewell addressed this week though, as she advanced the discussion on repatriation of tribal sacred objects, in particular with French authorities.

Over the past couple of years Paris has been a hotbed for auction houses selling off sacred objects despite the objections from tribal representatives.

RELATED: Adviser Sam Tenakhongva on Katsinam Auctions in Paris: ‘My Mission is Not Finished’

Jewell met with French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira on December 2 and expressed the concern of the U.S. in regards to the tribal sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony being sold off at French auction houses in hopes to build a working relationship to repatriate the objects back to tribes in the U.S.

According to an Interior press release, “Jewell and Taubira discussed their shared commitment to helping tribes repatriate their sacred cultural objects that, under tribal customary law, are owned by the tribe as a whole and cannot be legally sold by individuals. The Secretary and Minister agreed to explore pathways that might provide greater protections for U.S. tribes seeking to repatriate their cultural property.”

Sam Tenakhongva, an official representative of the Hopi Tribe, traveled to Paris in June to request the suspension of an auction told ICTMN that “unless you grew up in the culture, and understand it, how can you call yourself an ‘expert’? An outsider who does it is self-appointed.” Tenakhongva was responding to the question of who aside from the Hopi would have the expertise to examine sacred objects up for auction.

Jewell also met with President Catherine Chadelat of the Conseil des Ventes Volontaires, France’s auctioneering association and regulator, the release stated. In the meeting, which was just days ahead of the next scheduled sale of items of concern to several tribes, Jewell requested greater transparency on behalf of U.S. tribes. Tribes would like to know the origins of objects being sold by French auction houses prior to any auctions – the next one is December 7.

“At the request of tribes, the U.S. Department of the Interior has worked closely with the Department of State, including the U.S. Embassy in Paris, to engage French authorities and raise public awareness,” the release stated. “Only certain objects are considered ‘not for sale’ by tribes, including objects that are sacred, used for religious or healing purposes, and deeply important to tribal identity.”

Jewell emphasized the unique legal and political relationship federally recognized tribes share with the federal government during the meetings. She pointed out that federally recognized tribes are considered sovereign nations with their own governments that allow them to make decisions that affect their tribal communities including whether to sue or be sued in court much like other sovereign nations around the world.

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