When our sacred items go up for auction, we walk a fine line in our effort to get them back. If the public hears our outcry—that sometimes backfires, as buyers may perceive an item to be more valuable if a tribe says it is sacred. The price can quickly soar out of our reach and the sacred object is lost to us again.
Another issue is that our passion to get our objects back can sometimes turn off sellers or even make them afraid of us. That was the case in July when a shaman’s amulet went up at auction.
Sealaska Heritage posted a plea for donations on Facebook so that we could bid on the amulet and repatriate it to the tribes. The post reached more than 22,000 people and generated almost 800 reactions and nearly 60 comments. Clearly it hit a nerve.
People felt rightly indignant to see a sacred object such as a shaman’s amulet up for sale to the highest bidder. To our way of thinking, Native people would never alienate such a thing, so it probably was removed from a sacred space in the woods, a fate suffered by so many of our sacred objects in the past.
The specter of the auction made many people angry, and this was reflected in the Facebook comments. However, some people went a step further and contacted the auction house to lash out at the seller. In the end, the seller came away from the experience feeling defensive and even threatened.
As it turned out, none of the bids for the amulet met the minimum price set for the object, so the amulet did not sell. It was at that point SHI reached out to the seller through the auction house to try to negotiate a lower price and get it back. That was when we learned of the seller’s fear of us and his reluctance to deal with us at all.
Unfortunately, we were not able to negotiate a deal with the seller, who still has the amulet. To the seller: We apologize for the grief you endured over this auction—we meant you no harm.
Through this, we learned a lesson that we hope to impress upon you—the first people of this land. When our sacred pieces come up for auction—let’s be resolute about getting them back and do what we can to achieve that end. But let’s hold our ire. It doesn’t help. It can actually hurt our efforts to repatriate our ancestors’ material culture and our rightful legacy. Let’s express our anger in private, or to each other, but not in public and never to the seller.