Native American Tribe Fights To Stop Texas From Auctioning Off Its Sacred Objects

Native American advocates hold a news conference at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to contest a recent auction in Paris of Native American items. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ ANDREW HARNIK
Native American advocates hold a news conference at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to contest a recent auction in Paris of Native American items. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ ANDREW HARNIK

An upcoming auction in Texas intends to sell over 100 Native American items — including ceremonial pipes that are deeply sacred to the Oglala Sioux and guns that were used in the Massacre at Wounded Knee — over the objections of tribes who say it’s disrespectful.

Attorneys for the Dallas-based Heritage Auctions say they can legally proceed with the sale. But the Oglala Sioux tribe intends to file an affidavit to prevent the sale of the ceremonial pipes.

“These are our items, these are our laws,” Trina Lone Hill, the historic preservation officer for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told ThinkProgress.

It’s illegal to sell Native American ceremonial items. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was passed in 1990, stipulates that “cultural items” owned without the right of possession to them may not be sold on the market.


The three pipes up for sale belonged to prominent Oglala Sioux figures, including Chief Red Cloud and Chief American Horse. The tribe hopes to return them to the original owners’ direct descendants, who oppose auctioning them off.

The pipe is the most sacred item in our whole culture.

In Oglala Sioux tradition, a sacred woman gifted the pipe to the tribe as a means to lift their voices to Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit. Tribal members traditionally smoked pipes when narrating stories from their oral tradition and finalizing negotiations.

Selling ceremonial pipes is “taboo,” Lone Hill said. “The pipe is the most sacred item in our whole culture.”

The Massacre of the Wounded Knee occurred in 1890, as tensions were increasing between the U.S. government and the Sioux. The government had procured much of their land and became uneasy as the tribe regained unification through the sacred Ghost Dances. The Seventh Cavalry confronted the tribe and killed as many as 300 men, women, and children.


In an interview with the Associated Press, Lone Hill said she finds it “very insulting” to auction off weapons used at Wounded Knee. “It was a massacre; it wasn’t just a skirmish. It was women and children being killed.”

Tim Giago, a former journalist and member of the Oglala tribe, hopes the owner of the collection decides to donate the three guns to his nonprofit organization, the National Historic Site of Wounded Knee, Inc. The organization is raising funds to purchase the land at Wounded Knee, and Giago plans to build a museum there to commemorate the deaths of several hundred Native Americans. He would like the guns to be displayed in that museum.

The collection of Native American items being auctioned off belongs to Paul Rathbun, who says his grandparents and great-grandparents gathered them when they lived at Pine Ridge. According to the collection description, Chief Red Cloud offered Rathbun’s grandfather the pipe as a gift. Rathbun says none of the items “were purchased at a disadvantage or taken” from tribal members.

Please respect our ways.

The auctioning off of Native American items has long been a concern for tribes. Native American leaders and U.S. officials have publicly opposed several of these auctions in France over the past several years. But it’s been difficult to get courts there, which aren’t beholden to the same U.S. laws, to agree to remove sacred objects from sale.

Recently, an auction house in Paris sold 313 Native American artifacts, despite opposition from various tribal leaders and multiple U.S. government officials, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The auction house did retract the Acoma Pueblo shield from sale, citing reports claiming that the item may have been stolen in the 1970s.


There is some evidence of this happening in the United States, too. A rare warrior’s helmet of the Tlinget tribe in Alaska was sold to a private collector during an auction in Connecticut in 2008. Roisita Worl, an anthropologist and enrolled member of the Tlinget, said “I was very, very, very sad that something as important and as significant as a war helmet is going into a private collection.”

In Texas, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe are hoping for a different outcome. “Please respect our ways,” Lone Hill said. “[The pipes] are very sacred and we want them back.”

Rachel Cain is an intern at ThinkProgress.