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Native Americans step up fight over sacred object auctions
Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) speaks during an event at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to challenge the sale of American Indian artifacts and remains in France May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. In an international battle stretching from Native American lands in the American West to the auction houses of Paris, two tribes on May 24, renewed a years-long campaign to prevent the sale of sacred objects. The Acoma Pueblo Nation located in New Mexico and The Hoopa Valley Tribal Nation of California have announced their opposition to a scheduled sale next week of close to 500 artifacts at Paris' EVE auction house. Brendan Smialowski / AFP.

by Nova Safo

WASHINGTON (AFP).- In an international battle stretching from Native American lands in the American West to the auction houses of Paris, two tribes on Tuesday renewed a years-long campaign to prevent the sale of sacred objects.

The Acoma Pueblo Nation located in New Mexico and The Hoopa Valley Tribal Nation of California have announced their opposition to a scheduled sale next week of close to 500 artifacts at Paris' EVE auction house.

They want the sale stopped and the artifacts returned.

"This is not a work of art," Governor Kurt Riley of the Acoma Pueblo Nation told AFP, explaining how the Acoma view the objects up for sale. "This is a religious item that is dear to us. And when it's gone, it's like a piece of ourselves goes missing."

The tribes have the support of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian and the US departments of Interior and State. The EVE auction house did not respond to a request for an interview.

"In the absence of clear documentation and clear consent of the tribes themselves, these objects should not be sold," Mark Taplin of the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs told a Tuesday press conference in Washington.

Taplin said US authorities have been talking with their French counterparts since the auctions began in 2013, "But I must say we are still awaiting a response from the French side."

The battle is both cultural and legal.

Selling Native American artifacts in the United States is either highly restricted or illegal, depending on the objects and where they were recovered. And tribes have said that such sales are offensive insofar as they expose treasured and sacred objects to public commerce.

"These items are part of our daily lives and on certain occasions these are used in ceremony," Riley said. Tracking artifacts has become easier thanks to the Internet, he said, and the Acoma have stepped up efforts to recover them.

"We've been successful in the United States to recoup some of those items," he said. "It's in France that they've not been receptive to our position."

Considered living beings
There have been numerous Paris auctions of Native American artifacts.

In June 2014, nine masks from the Hopi tribe sold for a total of 137,313 euros ($187,000), with one 19th century mask alone fetching 37,500 euros.

French judges have supported the auctioneers' view that selling the artifacts is legal -- since no French law expressly prohibits them -- and have refused to stop auctions when tribes have sued.

But American tribes see the sales as an affront to their religion and culture, rooted in wrongs that date back hundreds of years when settlers pillaged artifacts.

Many of the sacred items are believed to contain spirits, such as the masks sold in 2014, considered living beings by the Hopi people and worn by dancers during religious ceremonies.

"It's amazing what's left our communities," D. Bambi Kraus of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers told the Washington news conference.

Kraus said members of her organization have been reviewing auction listings, and have been astonished.

"They're seeing things they didn't even know existed that were being now sold overseas," she said.

Kraus specifically objected to one item in next week's auction, lot #206 described as a warrior jacket of scalps.

"In our world, if that's human remains, you cannot sell human remains. It's just not the thing to do," Kraus said.

Conroy Chino, a Native American political and strategic consultant who is Acoma, said they have tried to explain their position to the French auction regulator, the Conseil des Ventes, but the agency has ruled that Native American groups do not have legal standing on French soil.

"We've been quite dismayed," Chino told AFP. "It creates a black market when French authorities don't take it upon themselves" to stop the sales, he said.

'No law violated'
In a letter to US authorities this month, Riley said many of the 443 items scheduled for sale in Paris are "from the Hopi Tribe, Zuni Pueblo, Acoma Pueblo, or other Ancestral Pueblos that are within our respective cultural provinces and with which we maintain a strong, deep connection."

The US embassy in Paris has tried to intervene.In 2014, it held an informational session on the cultural and religious significance of artifacts, and why Native American groups find their sale objectionable.

In 2013, the embassy called for a halt to another EVE auction, saying tribes should have time to examine artifacts to see if they can be recovered under a UNESCO convention against the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

But EVE defended the auction, saying that "no American law has been violated." The sale went ahead, fetching 520,375 euros ($714,180) for 24 Hopi masks.

The US has two federal laws, passed in 1990 and 1979, that offer protection for Native American artifacts. But the laws do not explicitly ban their export.

New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce has introduced a resolution in the US House of Representatives asking federal agencies to do more to address the theft of tribal artifacts, as well as their trafficking domestically and internationally.

1994-2016 Agence France-Presse

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