WASHINGTON (AP) — Native American leaders are protesting the latest plan by a Paris auction house to sell off part of their tribal history, and their demand for the return of their ceremonial objects is getting bipartisan support.
Hundreds of religious items and art pieces from the Americas, Africa and Asia are scheduled to go up for bidding Monday at Paris' EVE auction house, including a Plains war shirt made with hair from human scalps and sacred Hopi objects that resemble masks and are considered to be living beings by the tribe.
Ahead of the sale, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian held an emergency meeting Tuesday with tribal officials, the State Department and federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Also at the meeting was U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican whose proposed congressional resolution urges federal agencies to seek their return.
Pearce also is calling for a study to examine how often these kinds of cultural items fall into the hands of traffickers on the black market.
The Paris auctions have been a diplomatic issue for years between the United States and France, where U.S. laws prohibiting the sale of Native American ceremonial items hold no weight.
"It drives us to tears. It's that upsetting," said Eileen Maxwell, a museum spokeswoman. "It's very frustrating that there is no legal recourse now."
Other objects to be auctioned off include an Acoma Pueblo ceremonial shield, ancient jewelry and effigies linked to the Hohokam, who once inhabited part of present-day Arizona.
Selling the mask-like pieces that the Hopi consider the physical embodiment of their ancestors is particularly galling to the tribe. Each time they go up for bidding, the Hopi argue that their ancestors' spirits are being sold off.
With Monday's auction looming, Acoma Pueblo Gov. Kurt Riley sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and others urging them to "make every effort" to persuade French authorities to intervene.
Riley made an emotional appeal at Tuesday's meeting, seeking the return of the Acoma Pueblo ceremonial shield to the centuries-old village in New Mexico. Tribal leaders said it was illegally taken from the community atop a mesa southwest of Albuquerque, and that by pueblo law, it is a sacred item that should never have been removed.
Through tears, he said seeing cultural items go up for sale has caused the pueblo emotional harm.
"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," Riley said. "A black market for these cultural items has emerged in the United States."
A lawyer for the pueblo said tribal officials are also trying to arrange a meeting or conversation with the French government and are relying on U.S. officials to facilitate.
France has a long history, tied to its colonial past in Africa, of collecting and selling tribal artifacts. The Paris-based "Indianist" movement in the 1960s celebrated indigenous cultures, and interest in tribal art in Paris was revived in the early 2000s following the high-profile — and highly lucrative — sales in Paris of tribal art owned by late collectors Andre Breton and Robert Lebel.
Hudetz reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico.