Arizona tribe seeks to block upcoming sale of ceremonial artifacts at Paris auction house

An Arizona tribe is asking a Paris auction house to cancel its upcoming sale of dozens of items central to the tribe's religious practices and return them to their original homes in the American Southwest.

Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou describes the collection on its website as Katsina masks of the Hopi Indians of Arizona. They are scheduled to be auctioned April 12, with some expected to garner tens of thousands of dollars each.

To the Hopis, they are living beings called Katsina friends that emerge from the earth and sky to connect people to the spiritual world and their ancestors. Every member of the Hopi Tribe gets initiated into the Katsina society as a rite of passage.

Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the tribe's cultural preservation office, said the religious items have no commercial value and should be in the hands of the American Indian tribes from which they were taken, including the pueblos of Jemez, Acoma and Zuni in New Mexico. The sale of such items isn't extraordinary, but the size of the collection to be auctioned in Paris and the age of the items is, Kuwanwisiwma said.

The majority of the 70 katsina friends are labeled as Hopi and date back to the late 19th century and early 20th century. Kuwanwisiwma said they likely were collected from the Hopi in the 1930s and 1940s when there was documented evidence of a French citizen on the northern Arizona reservation.

"A lot of these objects were collected under suspicious conditions," he said. "You had such a huge competition by museums to collect artifacts from tribal reservations, and Hopi was no exception."

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act would protect such items in the U.S., but the law doesn't extend to France.

The Heard Museum in Phoenix is backing the Hopi Tribe's effort to reclaim the objects and said it was hopeful the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People could be used as leverage. France was among the first to sign the declaration that says indigenous people have the right to repatriation of their human remains, ceremonial objects and cultural patrimony.

An email sent to Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou on Tuesday was not immediately returned.

The auction house cited a book written by the founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Harold Colton, in its description of the katsinas. The museum's director, Robert Breunig, appealed to the sense of decency and humanity in asking that the auction be called off.

"To be displayed disembodied in your catalogue and on the Internet is sacrilegious and offensive," he wrote in a letter to the auction house. "If one claims to value these katsina friends as 'works of art,' one must also respect the people who made them and the native traditions that govern their use."

If returned, Kuwanwisiwma said the items will be placed in the care of the head katsina priest. The tribe would not bid on the objects otherwise, he said.

"Culturally we made it clear that there's no price tag on our ceremonial and religious objects," he said. "That's pretty much out of the question."