“We can do better in the world, and we can do better in this country.” These words from Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and member of the Pawnee tribe, set the stage for an emotional discussion held at the museum earlier this week.
The museum played host to an “emergency meeting” on Tuesday, May 24, to address the impending May 30 sale of hundreds of Native American cultural artifacts at the Eve auction house in Paris, France, which will include a ritual shield sacred to the Acoma Pueblo, numerous Hopi and Zuni figurines, and a warrior jacket bearing the human hair of Plains Indians slain in combat.
Kurt Riley, governor of the Acoma Pueblo people, spoke on the ever-present specter of theft in the pueblo. Items of cultural patrimony that turn up for sale overseas, he said, were in many cases taken from their rightful homes without the permission of the indigenous community, and subsequently relayed through a network of black markets—markets he termed “insidious and evil.”
By way of example, Riley pointed to the unsanctioned removal of the Acoma Pueblo shield—a direct violation of Acoma Pueblo law.
“The whole world condemns the destruction of Palmyra by ISIS,” Riley observed, alluding to the recent spate of cultural destruction in Syria. “Just as those things are happening worldwide, they’re happening in the U.S.”
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With New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce as an ally, Riley is optimistic about the possibility of securing a Congressional hearing on the subject. Nonetheless, as he concluded his remarks, the Acoma governor struggled to hold back tears.
“When these items leave our pueblo,” he said, visibly distraught, “this is how much it hurts.”
For their part, French auction houses like Eve make no acknowledgment of the dubious provenance of their inventories. In fact, the upcoming Eve event is but the latest in a series of similar auctions, which began cropping up in France as early as 2013. Over the past several years, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has repeatedly reached out to the French government, but has yet to receive a satisfactory response.
Brenda Pipestem, the Cherokee chair of the NMAI’s Board of Trustees, delivered a heartfelt exhortation to “call on the international community to join us in condemning the sale of… items of cultural patrimony and importance,” which American Indians view as nothing less than a human rights issue.
As Bradley Marshall, speaking on behalf of the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council, put it: “These objects are living beings, part of our community.”
“They are alive,” he said—“members of the tribe.”
Ultimately, those who gathered in the museum’s Atrium of the Potomac this Tuesday came together seeking basic human empathy. In the words of Bambi Kraus, president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, “what it means to have a piece of a living culture taken away, and sold to the highest bidder” is something few of us will ever truly understand. Our mandate, in the eyes of the Native American community, is simply to open our hearts.