Haida mask. (Photo courtesy of the company Eve)

A Haida mask that went to auction in Paris. (Screenshot)

The Paris auction, orchestrated by the company Eve, wasn’t just about selling old relics. Members of the tribes whose ancestors made these artifacts say they are living beings and the spirits of their ancestors are inside of them.

Crystal Kaakeeyáa Worl was in Paris selling her own artwork when she heard about the auction. Worl, her brother and the owners of the gallery hosting them joined a crowd of about 20 people at the auction house to protest.

Worl said she was allowed to sit in on the auction but was warned she would be removed if she made trouble. She said she wouldn’t and sat down.

“For me to be in that room and see the items, I couldn’t get up close to them, I couldn’t touch them, but to see them from a distance and to let them know that I was there before they went into these private collectors’ homes  — that was meaningful.”

Worl said these sacred objects were made to identify clans and to document their history; they’re still used in special ceremonies today. She believes they are living people.

“Specifically, the Tlingit people, we don’t have a word for art. For our objects that were used for ceremony and objects that were sacred we called at.óow, which is our sacred objects, which the auction was selling a lot of those items,” Worl explained.

Chuck Smythe is the director of the Culture and History Department at the Sealaska Heritage Institute. He found about 10 Tlingit and Haida artifacts that were put on the auction block. A Tlingit piece was near the top of his stack of printouts. Smythe said it’s a shaman’s rattle.

Tlingit shaman's rattle.

A Tlingit shaman’s rattle that went to auction in Paris. (Screenshot)

“It’s item number 227,” Smythe said. “It was used in the past and continues to be used today as items which brings spirits to ceremonies, particularly helping spirits that benefit people.”

Smythe said, at auction, objects like the rattle typically sell anywhere between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars. He’s heard of a war helmet that sold for just under $3 million. These objects may be sacred to Worl and tribes throughout America but, Smythe said, to collectors they’re just pieces of history, and the tribes who made them are dead and gone.

“They’re not aware of the living cultural communities that still use these items and have used them continuously,” Smythe said.

Smythe said, he remembers one instance when a foundation bought a number of Native American artifacts at auction in Paris and then returned them to the tribes. But, he said that was “highly unusual.”

As for international repatriation, he said the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights has provisions to protect cultural property. But he said it is weak on enforcement.

In the United States, it’s illegal for federally funded museums, agencies and schools to sell sacred Native American objects. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA requires sacred objects be returned to the tribes when they ask for them. The law doesn’t apply to private collectors and it doesn’t mean anything in France.

“What I learned in France is the only way we could withdraw or stall an item from being auctioned is to provide some kind of hard evidence for them that the item was stolen,” Worl said.

Worl said an Acoma Pueblo war shield was proven to have possibly been stolen and it was removed from the auction. As for the Tlingit at.óow, the fact they were in Paris was all the proof she needed.

Acoma Pueblo war shield.

An Acoma Pueblo war shield that may have been stolen was pulled from the Paris auction. (Photo courtesy of the company Eve)

“We would never sell an object like that. That is evidence that these were stolen items,” Worl said.

But that argument probably wouldn’t fly in French court. Worl said the auction house never responded to requests from around the U.S. to halt the auction and it didn’t acknowledge the protesters.

She believes the best way to prevent more Native artifacts from being sold abroad is to teach people about Native culture and explain how important their sacred objects are to them. She said that’s one of the reasons she protested.

“Maybe one of the buyers that was there that saw us, maybe they will decide to return the item they bought to the right community,” Worl said.

 

Recent headlines

  • dollar bill money macro

    Per diems driving special session costs

    Lawmakers who represent areas outside Juneau receive $295 for each day of the special session. Juneau lawmakers receive $221.25 per day.
  • Caroline Hoover proudly pins an Alaska Territorial Guard medal on the front of her father's parka during an official discharge ceremony held Oct. 17 in Kipnuk, Alaska. David Martin is one of three surviving members of the Alaska Territorial Guard's Kipnuk unit. A total of 59 residents of Kipnuk, who volunteered to defend Alaska in the event of a Japanese invasion during World War II, were recognized during the ceremony. Kipnuk residents who served with the Alaska Territorial Guard from 1942-1947 were members of a U.S. Army component organized in response to attacks by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. (Photo by Jerry Walton, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs cultural resource manager and native liaison/public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

    16 Alaska Territorial Guard vets to be honored in Anchorage

    Sixteen veterans of the Alaska Territorial Guard will be honored at a discharge ceremony today. Four of them are from Western Alaska.
  • Don Andrew Roguska looks out from an upstairs window of an historic Juneau house he bought in 2016 to restore. Zoning regulations have prevented him from rebuilding in the same style. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

    Juneau mulls relaxing zoning rules for historic houses

    The historic houses in Juneau and Douglas were predominately built by miners and fishermen long before today's zoning was put into place. That's prevented homeowners from restoring or rebuilding homes in these neighborhoods without running into conflict with the city's zoning laws -- a temporary fix may be on the way.
  • Young joins Afghanistan war skeptics in Congress

    Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young wants to know why Americans are still fighting in Afghanistan. He has co-sponsored a bill that would end funding for the war in a year, unless the president and Congress affirm the need for it.
X