16 Dec 2014
What's next: Ceremonial masks
are scheduled to return with tribal officials Tuesday
of Native Americans hold a banner reading "Selling and handling
stolen goods equals to a cultural genocide," at center, and
"We are not for sale," left, during a protest outside of the
Drouot's auction house during the contested auction of Native
American artifacts on Monday in Paris.
FARMINGTON Navajo Nation officials have purchased seven
ceremonial masks at a Paris auction.
The masks were sold Monday for about $9,120, according to a
press release from the tribe's Legislative Branch.
A 140-page auction catalog posted online identified the masks
as being from the Yei 'Bi 'Chei, or Nightway ceremony, a major nine-day
healing ceremony that takes place in the winter.
The masks were among 275 items sold by the Drouot, a public
auction house. A private collector placed the masks for sale through
the auction house. The sale also included art and artifacts from
the Acoma, Hopi and Zuni tribes.
"We are happy to be taking these Navajo sacred masks home to
be cleansed by our Navajo medicine people, who will determine when
these masks will be used in our wintertime ceremonies," said Navajo
Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim in a press release from the tribe's
Washington, D.C., office.
The Associated Press reported that several of the masks received
a competing bid from a French art collector, but he stopped bidding
after seeing that tribal members had attended the auction to purchase
lawyer Pierre Servan-Schreiber, who is defending Native Americans,
speaks to the media at the Drouot's auction house in Paris
during the contested auction of Native American items on Monday.
Jim was among four tribal officials who visited Paris to view
the masks before Monday's auction.
The vice president offered Navajo prayers for the masks, which
are thought to be from the early 1900s, in a private ceremony at
the auction house, according to the press release.
Tribal lawmakers, through the Legislative Branch's Subcommittee
on Sacred Sites, had been working with the Navajo Nation Human Rights
Commission and the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department,
as well as receiving guidance from Navajo medicine people, to have
the masks returned to the tribe.
"We made every attempt to retrieve the items prior to the auction.
We remained diligent and respectful throughout and were able to
recover items that were taken from our homeland," said Pro Tem Speaker
LoRenzo Bates in the Legislative Branch press release.
The subcommittee directed the Human Rights Commission to send
a delegation to Paris to retrieve the masks before the sale. Navajo
Nation President Ben Shelly approved the international travel on
Dec. 10, and the tribe's Office of the Speaker paid for travel expenses.
Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim poses for the media on Monday
outside of the Drouot's auction house in Paris prior to the
contested auction of Native American artifacts.
The delegation also received authorization to spend up to $20,000
to purchase the masks, said Deswood Tome, special adviser to Shelly.
Prior to the auction, tribal officials had been working with
French Ambassador Jane Hartley, the U.S. Embassy in France, the
U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
to have the masks returned, according to the Washington office news
Earlier in the year, the embassy worked with the Hopi Tribe
to try to block the sale of sacred Hopi masks but was unsuccessful.
International law does not prohibit the sale or collecting of
sacred artifacts or art from Native American tribes.
In the U.S., the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation
Act requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal
funding to return Native American cultural items to lineal descendants
and affiliated tribes. But the act has no grounds internationally.
Tome said the delegation was allowed to see the masks Saturday
and worked with the Historic Preservation Department to determine
each mask's authenticity.
In a Dec. 10 press release from the president's office, it was
reported there were eight masks for auction.
Tome said seven were determined to be Navajo, but the auction
house did not locate or produce the eighth mask.
The masks are scheduled to return with the delegation on Tuesday.