NAGPRA Fails to Stop Loss of Sacred Objects in Paris
“We had never heard of the Paris auctions,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office.
This simple declaration opened “Consumption and the Market: The Paris Auctions,” the third panel in this Spring’s NAGPRA series at Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. “In April 2013,” he continued, “we were notified that 65 of our Katsina friends were going to be sold; and the auction was only three and a half weeks away!”
What followed was a mortifying tale of dispossession and helplessness as moderator Brian Vallo and the three other panelists—Richard Begay, tribal liaison to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Resource Conservation Service; Jim Enote, director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center; and Anthony Moquino, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo—listened and digested the enormity of all that was lost in that one auction. (There have since been eight more.)
It’s not that they didn’t try everything in their power to regain their objects of cultural patrimony. The Hopis swung into action to intervene, filing a series of lawsuits in French court, but to no avail. Again and again the courts decided against them, claiming the Hopi Nation had no standing to bring a suit. In France, all that’s required to establish lawful ownership is a “Certificate of Rightful Possession”—easy enough for French families to produce. But in a particularly self-serving and grossly insensitive French twist, France argued against the sacredness of the objects themselves, saying in effect that they were already tainted by virtue of being in the marketplace.
“When we heard about the auctions we were filled with disgust, confusion,” Enote said. “We wondered what can we do, what kind of legal instruments can we bring forward? But we were coming up against a wall as First Nations people. It’s very difficult to tell another country how to conduct their commerce.”
A coalition of Native nations and tribes has since formed to stop future sales of sacred objects at the Paris auctions. Its immediate goal is to get a Bureau of Indian Affairs Special Agent assigned to this issue, and later to look towards legislative relief to strengthen NAGPRA with respect to international repatriations. “We’ve been as aggressive as we could,” said Kuwanwisiwma. “We’ve got our congressional delegation on board. They’ve made strong demands on our behalf to the Departments of State and Justice and to the FBI to take action to halt the auctions.”
As a complicating factor, the auctions have brought to light the astonishing number of fakes and replicas that are finding their way into the market. Enote hopes this “cloud of doubt” surrounding the authenticity of items will cool the market for sacred items.
Begay thinks poverty is driving the fakery. “During my time working for the Navajo Nation I’ve seen fake sand paintings, weavings, fake medicine people—we were fighting the whole gamut of fakeness and appropriation. Traditional people get upset, but the bottom line is money. There’s no economic development, there’s no access to capital; they’re desperate and want to feed their family. Who are we to stop this? I’m not here to defend it, but it is a reality.”
Kuwanwisiwma explained that it was economic desperation that caused the authentic objects to be separated from their people in the first place, around the beginning of the 20th century. “The Hopis were hit hard with a drought. Henry Voth, an agent of the Field Museum who spoke Hopi came with seven wagons of commodities, and he left with seven wagons of artifacts—an altar was traded for four sacks of flour.” He brought back so many Katsinas the Field Museum didn’t even want them all, and it’s presumed that they sold off the excess into private hands.
The tribes have not only lost control of the actual items, they’ve lost quality control. Kuwanwisiwma spoke of a village in the Philippines that changed its name to “Hopi” so it could legitimately claim that their facsimile katsina dolls were “Made in Hopi,” and therefore avoid prosecution under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Painfully, he added that some institutions have hired Hopi craftspeople to manufacture replicas of altars. “In our kiva or in Chicago, they appeared one and the same, because they were manufactured by Hopis.”
Moquino, whose mother sold off some of his father’s artifacts out of economic need, sees this process as corrosive. “How we manipulate and destroy the integrity of aboriginal peoples.” This recognition fuels his pursuit of lost pueblan objects; he has served as Ohkay Owingeh’s NAGPRA representative for 17 years, and he’s been fighting for the return of certain items for much of that time.
To counteract what Enote termed museums’ “convenient amnesia,” the panelists advocated shifting the burden of proof of ownership to museums instead of tribes, and exempting certain “items” from NAGPRA altogether. “NAGPRA legalized ownership of human remains, and that has to be examined,” said Kuwanwisiwma.
“Greed is a powerful drug,” said Enote. “It may take time for the ethical side to catch up.”
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