ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Friday asked French authorities to prevent the auction of a ceremonial shield from a Native American community in New Mexico, saying the item was believed to have been stolen decades ago.
In a letter to the auction house regulator in France, Jewell detailed why the Acoma Pueblo shield should be removed from Monday's planned sale in Paris.
"It is a sacred object and its importance to Acoma's culture, history and spirituality cannot be overstated. For this reason alone, repatriation is appropriate," she wrote. "However, the tribe has provided additional evidence ... that the shield was stolen from its rightful owners."
Documentation forwarded by U.S. authorities to the French official included a statement from the tribe's preservation officer as well as a sworn affidavit from the granddaughter of one of Acoma's traditional leaders who once cared for the shield.
It's believed the colorful shield, made of thick tanned skins stitched together with concentric leather straps, went missing in the 1970s when the family's home was broken into.
Jewell's letter indicated evidence of the theft is important because French officials had explained to her during a meeting in Paris last year that a sale could be prevented if the sacred object were stolen or obtained illicitly.
Similar auctions in recent years have spurred condemnation by many Native American tribes, with some tribal leaders saying the sales have created a monetary incentive for thieves and wrongdoers.
Paris' EVE auction house is preparing to put up for bid hundreds of religious items and art pieces from the Americas, Africa and Asia. Aside from the Acoma shield, a Plains war shirt made with hair from human scalps and sacred Hopi objects that resemble masks are listed.
The auction house has defended its practices. Director Alain Leroy reiterated Friday all the items are of legal trade in both the U.S. and France and that tribes will have an opportunity through the public auction process to acquire their past.
"And that is exactly what some tribes prefer to do, seeking efficiency and discretion," Leroy said.
Aaron Sims, an attorney for Acoma Pueblo, said the tribe does not plan to purchase the shield because doing so would fuel the "black market" that may have led to the item being taken in the first place.
Aside from Jewell's letter, an emergency meeting was held earlier this week with the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, at least two tribes, the State Department and federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Acoma Pueblo Gov. Kurt Riley also sent an open letter to the people of France asking that they stand with his tribe and call on the auction houses to stop selling sacred items. He called the practice profane and said the trafficking of such items violates tribal law.
The Acoma people trace their history back thousands of years in what is now western New Mexico. The pueblo, a National Historic Landmark, sits atop a tall mesa in a remote stretch of high desert.
The U.S. Interior Department has been working with tribes and other agencies to review the circumstances by which sacred objects and other important tribal patrimony are making their way into foreign markets.
On Friday, Jewell asked the French government for help in identifying the person who listed the Acoma shield with the auction house "so that justice may be served."
Associated Press writer Mary Hudetz contributed to this report.