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US hails ‘small victory’ as Paris auction withdraws Native American shield

Brendan Smialowski, AFP | An event held on May 24, 2016 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC to challenge the sale of artifacts in France.

A French auction house on Monday withdrew an Acoma Pueblo ceremonial shield from a contested sale of Native American artifacts after protests from the United States.


US Embassy spokesman Phil Frayne called the move a "small victory in a larger battle" to repatriate tribal artifacts.

Frayne told The Associated Press the US government believes the 19th-century artifact might have been taken illegally in the 1970s, and so it was withdrawn just before the auction pending further examination.

The colourful shield, made of thick tanned skins stitched together with concentric leather straps, was one of 314 items slated for sale in the French capital.

Protesters gathered outside the auction house, waving banners that read "cultural genocide" and "sacred not for sale”.

Representatives of New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo tribe claim the precious artifact was stolen in the 1970s, when the home of its owner was broken into.

Their case was picked up by US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who wrote to the French authorities last week detailing why the shield should be removed from the planned sale.

"It is a sacred object and its importance to Acoma's culture, history and spirituality cannot be overstated. For this reason alone, repatriation is appropriate," Jewell wrote. "However, the tribe has provided additional evidence ... that the shield was stolen from its rightful owners."

Documentation forwarded by US authorities included a statement from the tribe's preservation officer as well as a sworn affidavit from the granddaughter of one of Acoma's traditional leaders who once cared for the shield.

Jewell's letter indicated evidence of the theft is important because French officials had explained to her during a meeting in Paris last year that a sale could be prevented if the sacred object were stolen or obtained illicitly.

'Black market'

Similar auctions in recent years have spurred condemnation by many Native American tribes, with some tribal leaders saying the sales have created a monetary incentive for thieves and wrongdoers.

The EVE auction house, whose other items on sale include a Plains war shirt made with hair from human scalps and several Hopi objects, had previously defended its practices.

Director Alain Leroy reiterated Friday all the items were of legal trade in both the US and France and that tribes would have an opportunity through the public auction process to acquire their past.

"And that is exactly what some tribes prefer to do, seeking efficiency and discretion," Leroy said.

But Aaron Sims, an attorney for Acoma Pueblo, said the tribe did not plan to purchase the shield because doing so would fuel the "black market" that may have led to the item being taken in the first place.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Kurt Riley also sent an open letter to the people of France asking that they stand with his tribe and call on the auction houses to stop selling sacred items. He called the practice profane and said the trafficking of such items violates tribal law.

The Acoma people trace their history back thousands of years in what is now western New Mexico. The pueblo, a National Historic Landmark, sits atop a tall mesa in a remote stretch of high desert.

The US Interior Department has been working 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.

On Friday, Jewell asked the French government for help in identifying the person who listed the Acoma shield with the auction house "so that justice may be served".

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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