- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Thursday said she’s troubled by the auctioning off of objects held sacred by Native American tribes and she’s calling on the French government to help find a path toward repatriating the items.

Jewell’s comments come as Paris’ EVE auction house prepares to put up for bid hundreds of religious items and art pieces from the Americas, Africa and Asia.

Included are a Plains war shirt made with hair from human scalps, sacred Hopi objects that resemble masks and a ceremonial shield from New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo.

Jewell said both the U.S. and France take great pride in their cultural heritage and the items in question “are at the heart of Native American heritage and identity.”

“Auctioning off tribal sacred objects is extremely troubling not only because tribal law precludes the sale of these objects by individuals, but because items held by a dealer or collector are likely the results of wrongful transfer and may be for sale illegally,” she said.

Jewell has directed the Interior Department to work with tribes and other agencies to review the circumstances by which sacred objects and other important tribal patrimony are making their way into foreign markets.

Native American leaders are protesting next week’s planned auction and members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have voiced concerns.

An emergency meeting was held earlier this week with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, at least two tribes, the State Department and federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Acoma Pueblo on Thursday released an open letter from the tribe’s governor to the people of France. Gov. Kurt Riley asked French citizens to “help us in our hour of need.”

“We ask that you align your convictions with ours and call upon Paris auction houses to stop the practice of selling sacred objects, actions that are clearly wrong and profane,” Riley wrote.

He likened the sacred items to objects found in churches, basilicas and other places of worship. They’re so important, he said, that no one individual can own, sell or transfer them.

Riley also offered in the letter a brief history of his people, noting that the sacred items speak to civilizations that existed long before the arrival of the first Europeans in North America.

A message seeking comment was left Thursday with the EVE auction house. Its website includes a 282-page catalog with photographs and description of the items available at the auction.

France has a long history, tied to its colonial past in Africa, of collecting and selling tribal artifacts. The Paris-based “Indianist” movement in the 1960s celebrated indigenous cultures, and interest in tribal art in Paris was revived in the early 2000s following the high-profile - and highly lucrative - sales in Paris of tribal art owned by late collectors Andre Breton and Robert Lebel.

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