Give Us Our Stuff Back

By: Eric Abeita | Intern
Theodore J. Griswold | Partner |

Last month, the Paris auction house, EVE, attempted to sell 29 Hopi headdresses known as Katsinam.  This same auction house has sold various Native American religious items in four auctions within the past 18 months.  This auction, however, was challenged legally by the United States Embassy in Paris.  The US Embassy filed two actions to stop the sale of the sacred items, but both were defeated.  The Board of Sales, which is a French Government Agency with the power to regulate auctions and other commercial dealings, ruled that neither the Hopi Tribe nor any other Native American group had the legal standing to challenge the sale on French soil.

The US Embassy pulled out all the stops to halt the sale.  Embassy officials invited newly appointed federal judge Diane Humetawa to speak with government officials, art dealers, and others about why the sale of Native American spiritual objects is insulting and sacrilegious.  Judge Humetawa’s presentation was especially powerful as she is a member of the Hopi Tribe, and the first Native American woman to be appointed to the federal court.  Despite these efforts, the auction commenced.  However, this auction sold only nine of the 29 headdresses that were up for auction.  Philip Breeden, the Minister Counselor for Information and Cultural Affairs at the US Embassy, said he thinks the low number of sales is a result of the message of inappropriateness sinking in with some people.

I believe it is extremely unfortunate that the sale of Native American religious items and artifacts still continues globally.  It is illegal to take these objects from Federal or Tribal land and sell them in the United States.  However, thieves navigate US law by smuggling the items to countries like France, which have shown they have no interest in respecting or preserving Native American culture and religion.  Even if French Law is on the side of the auction house, the obvious right thing to do is to return the items to the respective tribes.  It is also hypocritical of the French to allow the sale of these items when they are signatories to the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which protects Native peoples’ art and religious items.

Further, it is also unfortunate that American Bar Association did not mention one word about the history of looting and illegally selling Native American artifacts and antiquities in its July cover story of the ABA Journal, “Looted Beauty.” The article discusses the looting of antiquities that has taken place for decades from countries like Cambodia, Greece, and India, and what those countries are doing to return their stolen heritage back to their homeland.  It is terribly ironic that an organization like the ABA, which is dedicated to advancing the rule of law in the United States, does not even mention the centuries of robbing both cultural and religious items from the original American communities.

Hopefully, Mr. Breeden’s statement that the message is sinking in is actually happening. It is only when more people take the position that the sale of these items is immoral and they must be returned to their proper owners, that the dirty business of pot hunting and artifact dealing will come to an end.  There can be legitimate excavation of some of these sites through professional archaeology, but the days of the loan artifact hunter “discovering” Native American cultural objects must stop.

Eric Abeita is a member of the Isleta Pueblo and is entering his third year at the University of New Mexico School of Law. Eric is a recipient of the 2014 Procopio Native American Internship.

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Ted is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with Ted at and 619.515.3277.