Navajo VP seeks to save sacred items from auction

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim is in Paris trying to spare tribal ceremonial items from auction.

Several masks believed to have been used in Navajo wintertime healing ceremonies that last nine days are scheduled to go up for auction Monday. Jim, who also is a medicine man, traveled with other Navajo officials to determine the origin of the masks, tribal spokesman Deswood Tome said Friday.

If they are authentic Navajo items, Tome said the delegation is authorized to try to negotiate a purchase ahead of the auction to keep the items out of private collections. The items that represent Navajo deities typically are disassembled after a ceremony and returned to the earth, Tome said.

The catalogue for the sale at the Drouot auction house also includes items labeled as being from other tribes in the American Southwest. The Hopi Tribe, which is completely surrounded by the Navajo Nation, is working with Arizona's congressional delegation to try to block the sale of Hopi items that embody the spirits of its ancestors.

The Hopis have been unsuccessful in the past, with court rulings in Paris declaring such sales legal. The tribe routinely has opted out of purchasing any items auctioned in Paris, although a U.S. charitable foundation once secretly bid on Hopi and Apache items and later returned them to the tribes.

The Hopi chairman and director of cultural preservation did not immediately return messages left Friday.

Most of Arizona's congressional delegation signed on to a letter Friday to the U.S. Department of State asking what could be done within existing rules, regulations and guidelines to ease the Hopis' concerns.

The Navajo officials said they have an opportunity Saturday to view what are known as Yei Bi Chei masks. Navajo Nation Council Speaker Pro Tem LoRenzo Bates said legislative officials have been strategizing with the tribe's Historic Preservation Department for months to ensure the masks are returned safely to the reservation that extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah in a careful and respectful manner.

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