FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Two dozen ceremonial items bought last year at auction in France are set to return to Arizona in a way that pays reverence to the beliefs of American Indian tribes.
The masks and hoods invoke the ancestral spirits of the Hopi and Apache tribes -- who consider them living beings in keeping with tradition -- and the expectation is they will be treated as such. That means shipping the sacred items free of plastics, bubble wrap or other synthetic material that would be suffocating. The items also should face the direction of the rising sun, have space to breathe, and be spoken to during their journey.
The shipping reflects the deeply sensitive nature of the items that the Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation quietly bought for $530,000 at a contested Paris auction two months ago with the goal of sending them back to their tribal homes in eastern Arizona.
The Hopi and two Apache tribes believe the return of the objects, kept largely out of public view, will put tribal members on a healing path and help restore harmony not only in their communities but among humanity.
"The elders have told us the reason we have the ills of society, suicides, murders, domestic violence, all these things, is we're suffering because these things are gone and the harmony is gone," said Vincent Randall, cultural director for the Yavapai-Apache Nation.
The tribes say the items -- 21 pieces are headed to the Hopi, two to the San Carlos Apache and one to the White Mountain Apache -- were taken from their reservations in the 19th and 20th centuries at a time when collectors and museums competed for sensitive items from Western tribes. Tribal archaeologists say the objects also could have been traded for food and water, or unrightfully sold.
In Hopi belief, the Kachina friends emerge from the earth and sky to connect people to the spiritual world and to their ancestors. Caretakers, who mostly are men, nurture the masks as if they are the living dead. Visitors to the Hopi reservation won't see the masks displayed on shelves or in museums, and the ritual associated with them is a lifelong learning process.
The San Carlos Apache recount a story of ceremonial items being wrenched from the hands of tribal members who were imprisoned by the U.S. military at Fort Apache.
"Of course you're going to be emotional, and of course it's going to have an effect on your health, the welfare of your people," said Vernelda Grant, director of the Historic Preservation and Archaeology Department for the San Carlos Apache Tribe. "It kills them, it killed us emotionally. Those items were taken care of until those times came. We were forced to hand them over so we could get what? A box of rations, a blanket?"