FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- A judge in Paris is holding a hearing Thursday on the auction of dozens of items central to an Arizona tribe's religious practices.
Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou plans to sell the collection Friday that it describes as 70 kachina masks of the Hopi Indians, although some of the items are labeled as coming from New Mexico pueblos.
The Hopi Tribe contends the items were stolen and has asked the auction house to prove otherwise through certificates of ownership or some chain of title. The items are considered communal property of the Hopi Tribe, and its chairman said no one other than a Hopi has the right to possess them.
The non-profit organization, Survival International, took up the Hopi's cause this week with a lawyer filing a motion in a Paris court to suspend the auction so that the origin of the items could be determined. The Hopi consider the kachinas living beings that emerge from the earth and sky to connect people to the spiritual world and their ancestors.
"Given the importance of these ceremonial objects to Hopi religion, you can understand why Hopis regard this or any sale as sacrilege, and why they regard an auction not as homage but as a desecration to our religion," Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa said.
The auction house didn't respond to a request for comment this week from The Associated Press.
The Hopi Tribe said it believes the items that date back to the late 19th century and early 20th century were taken from the northern Arizona reservation in the 1930s and 1940s, possibly by a French citizen who was visiting. Curiosity about one of the oldest indigenous tribes in the United States led collectors and researchers to the reservation in search of religious and ceremonial items and details about the culture and traditions, Hopi archaeologists say.
"In the United States, people went to lengths to come to Hopi to get any type of religious items because maybe they saw a benefit down the road for them financially," said Lloyd Masayumptewa, a Hopi from the village of Oraibi who studies archaeology. "Even our ancestral homes throughout the Southwest, people are still looting ancient sites and making a living out of it. The black market is huge for anything prehistoric."
Some items were stolen after visitors gained knowledge about where they were kept, Hopi families facing starvation sometimes exchanged the items for food and caretakers might have voluntarily given up items. Hopi archaeologist Lyle Balenquah said the repercussions of that time period are that many Hopis became withdrawn in discussions about religion and spirituality to protect what's left of it, even as information floats around on the Internet. Tourists today are limited in what they can see in the villages and what can be photographed.
"There was this idea that this was the last chance to see a Native American culture in its true form," he said.
Without any paper records, determining exactly where the items up for sale in Paris originated could be tricky. Men from the Hopi Tribe likely were the only ones to come into contact with the items because there are few, if any, women caretakers, and it was more common for people to talk about things that went on in the communities rather than write it down, Balenquah said.
Hopi villages and societies have a way of distinguishing items. If certain elders viewed the collection, they might have some identifying knowledge, Masayumptewa said.
The sale of such items isn't extraordinary, but the size of the collection to be auctioned in Paris and the age of the items is, Hopis say. The tribe has said it will not bid on the items if the auction is allowed to move forward.