Controversy in Collecting Tribal Art

Greta Chapin McGill - July 24, 2013

"Santa Fe is full of dealers and collectors of masks and other items. Do they know how these items were procured?"

One of the most meaningful places I have visited is Puye Cliffs. I was fortunate to have had the pleasure of visiting Puye on a guided tour facilitated by Santa Fe Walkabouts owners Sue and Georges Mally. The trip was held on a misty day adding to the spiritual atmosphere of Puye. What made the tour especially memorable was our tour guide Porter Swentzell. Swentzell’s knowledge about the Cliffs and their history is extensive and he conveyed it to me giving me an intimate understanding of the tribal life of Puye thousands of years ago. 
Puye is unique. Artifacts scattered thousands of years ago remain where they were left. Swentzell told me taking these artifacts is wrong, because they are sacred to the tribe, it would be disrespectful to their ancestors and plainly not good for one’s personal karma. He told stories of people who had sent items they had taken from the cliffs back to Puye because they realized what an offense taking them was. 
The French auction house of Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou recently held an auction of Hopi sacred artifacts despite the legal objections of the Hopi people. The sale generated $1.2 million. None of this money was donated or earmarked for help to the Hopi Nation. Some of the items included were Hopi Katsinam, Hopi spirit messengers who send prayers for rain, harvest, prosperity and a healthy life for humankind. The Hopi Nation represented by Survival International attorney Pierre Servan-Schreiber, objected to the sale of these masks. The Hopi people asked that the masks be returned to the Nation. These requests were denied by the auction house whose position was if the Nation wanted the items back they would have to buy them. Some items bought by supporters of the Hopi Nation, including those purchased by French singer/songwriter Joe Dassin, were returned. 
The question of artifacts and religious items obtained from indigenous people is widespread. Santa Fe is full of dealers and collectors of masks and other items. Do they know how these items were procured? Do they know for certain they are intended for ownership outside of tribal lands? As with any piece of art these items are based in the creative and spiritual vision of the creator. The Paris auction house claimed also once the masks are used they lose their spiritual connection. Is this accurate?
The fact tribal leaders asked for the items back, to me is an indication the Katsinam are sacred to the Hopi. Their passionate pleas for the return of their sacred items is an indication to me that the Hopi Nation does not feel their spiritual connection is lost.  The line is blurred. In the United States the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, now 20 years-old, assists in the return of sacred items to the tribes. If these items are asked to be returned it seems they should be returned.  How they are procured is not important. The fact remains they were somehow taken from their places of origin.
The creation of art, whether for religious or visual purposes, is something lawyers and lawmakers cannot legislate. Only the artist can impart the reason for the creation and decide if the item can or should be sold. Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou should be mindful of the sacred nature of the Katsinam. It is obvious they were not created in France. Collectors should search their own hearts.