FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — U.S. and French officials have agreed to form a working group to address the auction of American Indian cultural objects that have been sold legally in France but over the objection of tribes that treat them as living beings and use them in religious ceremonies.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she met with French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira this week in Paris and the two agreed to look for ways to better protect tribes seeking the return of cultural objects. Details on the working group were vague, but the Interior Department said it will be set up in the near future.
France has become the premier place globally for the sale of sacred objects that resemble masks.
Judges there repeatedly have ruled the sales are legal and rejected attempts to delay auctions so that tribes could investigate the origin of the items. The Hopi Tribe has been at the forefront of the legal fight and refuses to bid on the objects it says are rarely displayed and aren't supposed to leave the northern Arizona reservation. The Navajo Nation secured several items at a Paris auction last year by sending the tribe's vice president to Paris to buy them.
The Drouot auction house in Paris has a sale scheduled Monday that includes some Hopi items as well as others identified as being from tribes in the American Southwest.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs notifies tribes when such items go up for auction and offers to coordinate talks with U.S. officials. Tribes as sovereign nations can decline the offer and work directly with the U.S. State Department, the Interior Department said.
Taubira's office didn't immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press on what the working group could consider within the bounds of French law.
Jewell said she also met with Catherine Chadelat, the president of the Council of Sales, the French auction market authority. She told the AP in 2013 that the council had no legal grounds to intervene in the sale of tribal objects.
Officials have said the tribes could pursue a claim under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Export and Transfer of Ownership and Cultural Property, to which both France and the U.S. are signatories. Tribes also have tried to raise awareness on humanitarian grounds through the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
The Hopi Tribe has sought the names of private collectors and the known history of the items so that tribal officials could try to negotiate the return of them. Those efforts haven't been fruitful.
Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, cultural preservation director of the Hopi Tribe, said it's also unclear whether the items are being trafficked into France or recently are surfacing from private collections to be sold. He said tribes are exploring whether amendments to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act could address international trafficking.
"We look at catalog after catalog," he said. "The central piece of attention is Hopi items because they're the most numerous. But you have items by other tribes being auctioned off. It's a coalition issue by indigenous tribes here in the United States."
Associated Press writer Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.