More than 70 sacred artifacts from tribes in the Southwest, mostly from Hopi, are slated to head to auction in Paris next week over tribal objections.
The Hopi items are mostly worn on the head in religious ceremonies that continue today. They are widely held as living beings that connect people to ancestors and the spirits of other living things.
The artifacts at issue in this case date from the 1800s and 1900s and are typically handed down from one generation to the next.
"These are items that should be home with our people, and that's where they rightfully belong," said Hopi Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa.
The Hopi tribal government is asking the Paris auction house, Neret-Minet, to return them.
It is slated to auction them April 12.
Items from the Jemez Tribe, of New Mexico, are also up for bidding.
Shingoitewa is also working with embassies, he said, and does not know how the artifacts wound up in Europe, other than to guess they long ago were acquired by an individual outside the tribe.
"All we're doing is trying to find a way to stop that auction ... we're asking for them to honor Hopi by not doing any selling of any kind," Shingoitewa said.
He has instructed members of his government not to comment on the issue.
The items are worn about the face or head, but use of the word "mask" is deeply offensive to some Hopis, Shingoitewa said.
The keepsakes are kept in kivas and most often worn by Hopi men, who sometimes fast for days before the ceremonies.
Museum of Northern Arizona Director Robert Breunig posted a letter online Friday calling on the auction house to return the items.
"... they belong to the communities from which they come or to specific ceremonial societies. Under tribal custom and law they cannot be sold or given away by an individual," Breunig wrote.
His letter had received nearly 13,000 reads as of Monday.
"I guess to use a common term, it went viral," he said.
Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.