Hopi Masks and The Recent Auction of Sacred Objects

Last week, we discussed Heid Erdrich’s poem “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects.”  The poem pokes fun at museums’ treatment and policies regarding Native American material culture with stanzas such as the following:

If an object calls for its mother,

boil water and immediately swaddle it.

If an object calls for other family member,

or calls collect after midnight, refer to tribally

specific guidelines.  Reverse charges. [1]

Her poem raises the issue that for years, items of significance to Native American peoples have been locked away beyond the reach of its maker’s descendants.  This has changed of course with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990.

Museum within the United States who receive Federal funding are now require to abide by NAGPRA provisions. This law allows for Native American tribes to re-claim culturally sensitive items – funerary objects, human remains, sacred objects and other objects of cultural patrimony – that are within museum collections. [2] Having participated in two NAGPRA related projects, I learned from my supervisors how the return of this material culture is a slow process.  Even after 22 years of being enacted, some museums still find themselves repatriating objects back to the tribes.

Reading Erdrich’s satirical poem proved appropriate for last week’s discussion with Friday’s controversial auction of a collection of Hopi Masks. The sale moved forward in Paris, France despite the Hopi Tribe’s legal efforts to stop the auction from occurring. [3] NAGPRA does not extend internationally meaning many of the cultural items that have left the United States are now beyond the reach of Native American tribes who might wish them back into their own possession.

Upon hearing that French officials agreed to hear the case Hopi legal representatives were preparing, I felt a gleam of hope that these items might be returned.  Yet, having learned in other classes about the complications regarding repatriating across international boarders, I knew the likely hood that the auction would continue.   In thinking about Erdrich’s poem again, I am curious about whether institutions outside of North America have policies dealing with culturally sensitive collections.

[1] Heid Erdrich, “Guidelines for the Treatment for Sacred Objects,” from National Monuments (Michigan State University Press, 2008).

[2] “National NAGPRA,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/history/nagpra/FAQ/ (accessed April 17, 2013).

[3] Tom Mashburg, “Auction of Hopi Masks Proceeds After Judge’s Ruling,” New York Times, April 12, 2013,

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/12/french-judge-rules-that-auction-of-hopi-masks-can-proceed/ (accessed April 17, 2013).

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