Earlier this week, Hoopa Tribal Council Members Leilani Paul and Bradley Matthews led a prayer at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.
They joined other Indian leaders to protest the sale of ceremonial objects scheduled for Monday at the auction house EVE (Estimations Vente aux Enchère) in Paris.
The auction features a Hupa sacred deer (Hupa is the spelling used to describe the sacred items and culture of the Hoopa Tribe), plus a Pueblo war shield, ancient Puebloan bone fragments and Hopi Kachinas.
Matthews and other tribal leaders called on the auction house to return the items, which have powerful religious significance.
“It’s almost like a search for a lost family member on an international level,” Matthews said in an interview Friday. “And we’re hopeful that somehow we’ll be able to bring it home.”
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires American institutions receiving federal funds to return "cultural items" to Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. But the U.S. has no international treaties governing the return of such items.
Matthews says there’s no legal way for anyone other than a tribal member to own the deer.
“There are stories of regalia and other sacred objects leaving our lands in the late 1800’s by the wagonloads,” Matthews said, “and that was the taking of our culture of our community.”
Other tribal members at the Smithsonian made similar arguments. Conroy Chino a traditional leader from the Pueblo of Acoma in New Mexico says a member of his tribe recalls the theft from her grandfather of a 19th century Acoma Pueblo war shield pictured in the EVE auction catalog.
In the past the Paris auction house has defended the sales, despite unsuccessful challenges in the courts. Before a sale of Navajo masks last year, Auctioneer Alain Leroy told the Associated Press,“It’s legal. It’s business. What’s the problem? The tribes are shocked, yes. But to each his own morality.”
“That is absolutely deplorable that he would make that comment,” Chino said. “There’s no way these items left the Pueblo legally.”
Hoopa Tribal member Matthews wouldn’t say whether the tribe would bid on the Hupa deer.
He said he was heartened at the Smithsonian hearing, though, to learn that the U.S. State Department is looking into the possibility of negotiating treaties with other governments for the repatriation of sacred American Indian artifacts.