The Artifacts of Genocide

A hand-painted Hopi instrument. A Paris auction house has once again performed an auction of sacred Hopi artifacts.A hand-painted Hopi instrument. A Paris auction house has once again performed an auction of sacred Hopi artifacts. (Image: Hopi instrument via Shutterstock)

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The French government has once again failed to stop an auction of sacred Hopi artifacts by a Paris auction house, this one occurring on June 10. France’s continuing complicity in this artful form of cultural genocide is particularly disturbing, given its own complicated history of involvement in the Nazis’ systematic plunder of tens of thousands of works of art from the private collections of European Jews.

The French should be particularly sensitive to the provenance of the claims of the Hopi tribe of Arizona. The Hopi (who call themselves Hopitu, or “the peaceful people”) have suffered religious persecution along with theft, plunder, destruction and appropriation of their ceremonial and sacred art objects since their first contacts with European-derived colonizers in the 16th century.

The Hopi have been trying to stop these particular unauthorized auctions through appeals to the French legal system since 2013. Their efforts have been summarily dismissed on the grounds that the Hopi must prove the bad faith of the current possessor under French civil law.

Most recently, the Hopi have been joined in their efforts by the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, which is devoted to securing the return of art looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. But the Conseil des Ventes Volontaires, created by the French government to control and regulate the conduct of France’s auctioneers and auction houses, has denied their claim, inexplicably holding that with over 14,000 enrolled members and unequivocal US recognition as a Native American tribe, the Hopi are unable to demonstrate their legal existence and therefore their capacity to take legal action under French law.

Knowing their own ancient laws and customs is one reason why the Hopi want to examine the objects being offered for auction in Paris, hoping to find evidence establishing that they were taken without the tribe’s authorization and therefore the artifacts are subject to restitution and return. French auctioneers and authorities have so far refused to comply with this simple request that would reveal their own complicity in the trafficking of these artifacts of genocide.

The concept of cultural genocide extends beyond physical attacks upon a group, to actions that aim to eliminate its wider institutions. Such acts include restrictions upon the group’s traditional cultural practices and the destruction of its religious institutions and objects. As the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs has explained: “Elements of cultural genocide are manifested when artistic, literary, and cultural activities are restricted or outlawed and when national treasures, libraries, archives, museums, artifacts, and art galleries are destroyed or confiscated.”

Under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which France supported when adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, the Hopi, as an indigenous people, have the right to be protected from destruction of their culture through actions which have the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities. And states like France are required under the UN declaration to provide effective mechanisms for the return of indigenous peoples’ cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.

These provisions of the declaration, which reflect general principles of international law, were adopted by the United Nations, and supported by France, in recognition that the cultural appropriation of sacred objects belonging to indigenous peoples is a continuing byproduct of centuries of genocidal policies aimed at the deliberate destruction of their cultures and religious practices. Tribal land and resources were forcibly taken and tribes were confined to reservations. There, tribal laws and institutions regulating the control and ownership of ceremonial objects could be systematically disrupted and dismantled.

Religious leaders who understood and maintained these laws and customs, and oftentimes kept the sacred objects themselves for safekeeping and protection, were persecuted, imprisoned and driven underground. Profiteers, plunderers, art dealers and grave robbers swept in after that, eager to appropriate the sacred property that is now being offered for sale to the highest bidder, as artifacts of the history of genocide perpetuated against indigenous peoples.