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Reviewed by Elizabeth Sackler on February, 2008


In the United States of America, First Amendment Rights [1] are one of the keystones of our democratic republic. However, during the two hundred years after the American Revolution the first Native Americans fought disease and cultural genocide resulting from the federal government's racist policies. Ceremonial dances were banned and punishable by incarceration and death, American Indian children were kidnapped and sent to boarding schools to "take the Indian out of the man", and the majority of tribes were moved from their homelands to reservations. American Indian items, both utilitarian and ritual objects, moved into the hands of traders, collectors, and into museum cases. Auction blocks and dealer's shelves were replete with objects as a result of theft, pawn, and sale, under duress. One of the more appalling exploits began in 1868. The Smithsonian Institution's anthropologists set out to 'prove' the inferiority of American Indian Peoples and began the "Cranial Studies." This resulted in decades of mass murder and grave robbing, decapitation, boiling, weighing and shipment of skulls by train to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. [2]

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed into law on November 16, 1990 and requires federally funded institutions to repatriate ceremonial material, cultural patrimony, human remains, and associated grave goods. (see Mending the Circle, A Native American Resource Guide)


In the Spring of 1992, Sotheby's "Fine American Indian Art" sale catalogue featured three katchina masks. Representatives from the Hopi and Navajo Nations contacted Sotheby's and explained that the two Hopi Kachinas and Navajo Yebeiche listed for sale were not art, but spiritual 'friends', as the Pueblo Peoples call them. These sacred messengers of spirit are essential for the continuance of life's cycle. The Hopi's requests for the removal of the Kachinas from the upcoming auction fell on unsympathetic ears. Sotheby's responded that as a private corporation they are not bound by NAGPRA. Though legally accurate there are ethical questions surrounding the sale of spoils of war and religious items needed by living cultures. Newspapers and radio stations championed the Hopi and Navajo, and the drama was followed by the media.

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