7/23/2013 10:00:00 AM Auctioned sacred object back in Hopi hands French lawyer bought Kachina in order to return it to Hopi Tribe
From left: LeRoy N. Shingoitewa, chairman of the Hopi tribe, Jean-Patrick Razon, director of Survivalís French office, Lawrence Keevama, Kachinmongwi, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, lawyer, Sam Tenakhongva, Kachinmongwi, and Leila Batmanghelidj, director of Survivalís American office, exchange gifts after a French lawyer returned a sacred object to the tribe. Photo/Survival International
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - A sacred object to the Hopi auctioned off in France in April was returned to the Hopi in an emotional handover July 15.
Representatives of tribal rights organization Survival International and lawyer Pierre Servan-Schreiber, who worked on the case in a pro bono capacity and tried to stop the auction on behalf of Survival International and the Hopi tribe, returned the sacred object to the Hopi.
Survival International advocates for indigenous tribes' rights to their land.
Because they have an office in Paris, the group felt it could help the Hopi try to stop the auction with Servan-Schreiber's help.
According to Kayla Wieche from Survival, Servan-Schreiber felt a connection to the events and he purchased the Kachina individually.
"He felt really moved by the tribe's feeling toward these religious objects and he felt like that's what he could do, he could play a part in giving them back something," Wieche said.
"It is my way of telling the Hopi that we only lost a battle and not the war," Servan-Schreiber said. "I am convinced that in the future, those who believe that not everything should be up for sale will prevail."
Wieche said the return of the Kachina was an emotional and moving experience. Watching the return really brought home to her - and everyone involved - how much the Hopi had been affected by the sale of their sacred objects.
"Everyone felt a strong, emotional reaction to the Kachina being returned and also to the idea that there are dozens of other ones out there in private homes," Wieche said. "We saw how upsetting that was, too. It really made it very real to us."
In April, a Paris judge allowed the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou house to auction off close to 70 Hopi sacred objects for $1.2 million.
According to the French newspaper Le Monde, Judge Magali Bouvier said in his ruling at the time that while the objects may have "a sacred value, a religious nature, or represent the spirit of these people's ancestors, it remains evident that they cannot be equated to bodies or body parts of living or dead people."
In the U.S., laws protect against the sale of sacred objects but in France there is not a similar law. Nevertheless, the auction brought an international outcry. Wieche believes that it made people aware of the harm that auctions like this can do and the hurt that they cause.
"I think everyone was rooting for the Hopi," Wieche said.
She added that attitudes about tribal people's beliefs and different cultures can be shaped by public opinion and that the widespread support for the Hopi may make a difference.
"Displaying the arrogance of the auction house, the devastating effect it had on the Hopi community, we're really hoping that that will make foreign auction houses really think twice about doing something like this again," Wieche said.
Tribal Chairman LeRoy Shingotewa said he believes that Indian tribes throughout the country need to come together and begin to look for ways they can help establish international law that will help protect sacred objects beyond the boundaries of the United States.
Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, said the sale of Hopi katsinam would never have happened in the U.S.
"Thankfully, U.S. law recognizes the importance of these ceremonial objects," Corry said. "It is a great shame that French law falls so far behind. We're delighted that at least two of the katsinam have been saved, and can be returned to their rightful owners."
Wieche said she is hopeful that the future can bring more of these collaborations.
"We feel so honored to see that respect between cultures in action," Wieche said. "To see the public outcry about the auction, to see a French lawyer halfway around the world, a top corporate lawyer, be so moved by these events that he wanted to do what he could-we felt really very honored to play a part in that."
And she said it wasn't a stretch for Survival International to be involved in this case and that there are many similarities between the Hopi way of life and the tribal people Survival works with all over the word from dry farming, to wanting rain to improve their crops and their ties to the land.
The family of deceased French singer Joe Dassin bought a second sacred object and will return it to the Hopi in the fall.
"We hope that other people will start to come forward and return these Kachinas to the tribe," Wieche said. "That would be ideal."