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Reporter's Notebook: Hopi Sacred Objects Returned Home
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Reporter's Notebook: Hopi Sacred Objects Returned Home


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Now an update on a story from earlier this year. Last April, an auction house in Paris sold a pair of ceremonial Hopi headdresses to an art dealer despite objections from the tribe. Hopi leaders say the items are sacred and belong on the reservation. Well, after visiting the tribe, the buyer agrees. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Flagstaff.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: A lot of secrecy surrounds the Hopi religious practices and the tribe does not want these objects described. However, you have to understand what they are and how they're used to understand why they're so important. The Hopi believe they are living beings. To most everyone else, they look like tribal masks used in ceremonial dances.

The Neret-Minet auction house in Paris sold 70 of them last April.

MONROE WARSHAW: I walked in, saw them, and they were visually incredible.

MORALES: Monroe Warshaw, a photographer and an art dealer from New York, happened to be at the auction house for a sale of master drawings. While there, he saw the Hopi masks and bought two of them, paying about 26,000 euros or $34,000.

WARSHAW: You wanted to see the whole - if this is just one part of something, you wanted to see everything.

MORALES: Warshaw says even though he collects art, he knew these items didn't belong above someone's sofa.

WARSHAW: I was buying the ones that I bought to give them to a responsible museum or institution that would properly care for them because sometimes the culture that made something is not necessarily the one best to preserve it. I did not know that they were sacred.

MORALES: But when he walked out of the auction house, reporters asked him about buying them. He says he felt vilified by the media and has received a lot of hate mail. With some trepidation, he decided to visit the Hopi Reservation. While there, he was invited to a ceremonial dance.

WARSHAW: To see these pieces being used, you realize that you couldn't own them because they were still to them living beings. And to own it was like ripping the heart out of an animal or something because these are sacred to them.

MORALES: After witnessing the Hopi dance, Warshaw understood how special these items, which the tribe calls katsinas, are.

WARSHAW: Something was there guiding me, in a way, to make the right decision. And I never would have, in my life, imagined that.

HERMAN HONANIE: The return of these katsinas back to Hopi does mean a lot to us to have them back home.

MORALES: Hopi Vice Chairman Herman Honanie says even talking about these objects feels like he's dissecting his religion and eroding his way of life.

HONANIE: There's a whole and total disconnect and a lack of understanding and even maybe lack of respect for who we are and what the significance is of these sacred items and what it means to Hopi.

MORALES: At the same time, he understands in order to get them back, the tribe had to explain to outsiders why these were important.

HONANIE: We hold a very strong and tight position that, you know, nothing like this should happen. It can't happen and must not be repeated. And so we just wonder where are the other friends, where are the other katsinas.

MORALES: At least one other katsina from the auction this spring has been returned to the tribe, but another Paris auction house plans a sale of more sacred objects this fall. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.


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