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Should sacred tribal objects be for sale? Paris auction angers native Americans.

Plans to put many native American sacred objects up for bid Monday have sparked criticism. In the United States, tribal laws forbid individuals from selling such items. 

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    Members of American Indian Nations and American Indian advocates attend a news conference at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, Tuesday, to contest a Paris auction house's upcoming auction of Native American remains and sacred objects.
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A Paris auction house's decision to put objects held sacred by native American tribes up for bid is coming under fire, with many in the United States saying the sale raises troubling questions about disrespect for the items' history.

The EVE auction house is preparing to auction off hundreds of religious objects and art from the Americas, Africa, and Asia on Monday.

On Friday, auction house director Alain Leroy defended the auction, which includes a Plains war shirt made with hair from human scalps, and a ceremonial shield from New Mexico's Acoma Pueblo. Sacred Hopi objects resembling masks that are considered to be living beings by the tribe are also included.

Mr. Leroy argues the items up for auction "are of legal trade" between the US and France, telling the Associated Press that the tribes will be able to acquire the items through the auction process.

Tribal laws in the US prohibit individuals from selling such items. Officials from the Interior Department say they are investigating whether the items may have been obtained illegally.

In an open letter to the people of France, Gov. Kurt Riley of the Acoma Pueblo tribe likened the items to the sale of objects found in churches, basilicas, and other places of worship.

He called on the French people to "help us in our hour of need," adding, "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."

The items are considered so important they can't be owned, sold, transferred by any individual, he noted. Addressing the tribe's historical legacy, he noted that the sacred items represent civilizations that existed long before the arrival of Europeans in North America.

US officials from the Interior Department have also raised legal questions. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has directed the department to work with tribes and other agencies to determine how the sacred objects came to be available in France.

"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 Thursday.

Tribal officials, the State Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and a congressman from New Mexico gathered Tuesday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington for an emergency meeting to discuss the auction.

But in France, the sale of items tied to indigenous history, including links to the country's colonial past in Africa, can be highly profitable.

A Paris-based "Indianist" movement in the 1960s celebrated indigenous culture. More recently, interest in tribal art was revived in the early 2000s after the sale of objects owned by the late collectors Andre Breton and Robert Lebel.

In 2003, anthropologists successfully facilitated the return of a headdress owned by Mr. Breton, the French surrealist, to the Kwakwaka'wakw tribe in British Columbia, according to Radio France Internationale. 

At Tuesday's meeting, tribal officials from the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council sought to convey the gravity of the auction, noting that items had been pilfered "by the wagonloads" against their will.

"When we create [ceremonial] objects, we're in prayer. We're breathing life into the object," Bradley Marshall said at the meeting, as NPR reports. "And so these objects are not just a mere object in some fancy collection, these objects are living beings to us. These objects are a part of our family ... these objects have a sacred purpose in our community."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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