Native Americans say a French auction house should return their sacred objects set to go on sale, and they have an ally in Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, N.M.
“My first reaction to this story was one of great sadness. It's tragic that this desire for personal profit from the sale of sacred objects is the ultimate goal,” Bishop Wall said. “These objects are sacred to the pueblo people and they belong to the whole community.”
The items come from tribes including the Hopi, Pueblo and Zuni as well as the prehistoric Hohokam tribe.
Other objects to be auctioned off include a ceremonial shield of the Acoma Pueblo, whose territory is in the region of the Gallup diocese.
“I understand their pain at the potential loss of these items, and I would like to add my voice and support to theirs in urging the sellers and buyers to withdraw these items from auction and return them to the Pueblo people,” said Bishop Wall.
The objects will be auctioned on Monday at Paris' EVE auction house along with other religious items and art pieces from the Americas, Africa and Asia.
Under traditional Hopi beliefs, the auction's mask-like pieces are considered to be the physical embodiment of their ancestors. The objecting Hopi say that selling the items is selling their ancestors' spirits, the Associated Press reports.
Other items include ancient jewelry and effigies linked to the prehistoric Hohokam tribe who lived in what is now Arizona.
Acoma Pueblo Gov. Kurt Riley has asked Secretary of State John Kerry and others to make every effort to persuade French officials to stop the auction.
Reilly appealed for the return of the ceremonial shield. Tribal leaders said the shield was taken illegally from the community, which is based on a mesa southwest of Albuquerque, N.M. By pueblo law, the object is sacred and should never have been removed.
“How it left the pueblo, we don't know. However its mere existence outside the pueblo tells us an event occurred in violation of Acoma law,” he said. “A black market for these cultural items has emerged in the United States.”
Gov. Riley addressed an emergency meeting hosted by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Attendees included tribal officials, the State Department, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who has proposed a congressional resolution urging federal agencies to seek the return of the items.
U.S. laws bar the sale of Native American ceremonial items, but these laws do not apply in France.
Bishop Wall told CNA he personally knows Gov. Reilly and many Acoma and Hopi families personally. He has celebrated Mass in the Pueblo churches for those who are Catholic. The bishop was born in Ganado, Ariz., which is a chapter of the Navajo Nation Tribe. His parents were school teachers there. He currently chairs the U.S. bishops' Subcommittee on Native American Affairs.
Suzanne Hammons, spokesperson for the Diocese of Gallup, N.M. urged the bidders and auctioneers to “take a long, hard look at the concerns of the tribes.”
“Let's be clear: these are sacred objects, and they should be treated as such,” Hammons said. “As Catholics, how would we feel if sacred relics, art, or other items were taken and then sold for a profit, especially without our knowledge or consent?”
“These are religious objects, and they carry a deep significance to the tribes. They should be treated with honor – not as decoration for the home of the highest bidder. These items were intended to benefit the whole tribe, not to pad the private collections of bidders.”
She said reports that the items were obtained illegally makes the auction “even more questionable.”