In April of last year, the French auction house Daouot’s, sold many Native American artifacts that included dozens of sacred Hopi masks and kachina’s that were stolen from the reservation in the late19th and early 20th century. The Hopi Tribe and the U.S. government pleaded to halt the sale, and it went to court.
To the Hopi, the idea that these “objects” are commercial art is an insult. They see them as the living embodiment of their ancestors, that need to be nurtured and fed. In the end they were put up for sale that brought hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Crow Mother mask alone sold for $136,000.
Just 8 weeks ago, Skinner, an auction house in Boston, Massachusetts listed a “Sioux Beaded and Quilled Hide Shirt” that belonged to the Lakota Chief, “Little Thunder”. The shirt was estimated to fetch between $150,000-$300,000 when Skinner put it up for sale on November 9. But minutes before the auction began, Skinner withdrew the item in response to pressure from the Little Thunder family and Sioux tribal officials.
This is not just a shirt for the Little Thunder family or the Lakota people. Little Thunder’s shirt is a symbolic representation of a culture’s history and values. Karen Little Thunder, the great, great granddaughter of the Chief, says that the shirt is special in a way that white people can’t understand (NY Times, 12/28/13). “As a nation, we once stretched from Montana to eastern Wisconsin, and from the Canadian border to Nebraska…this shirt brings the greatness of our tribe within reach of every tribal member”.
Since our earliest ancestors, every culture has developed its own myths, rituals, ceremonies, and created sacred objects to bind its people together. Those sacred objects give stories their power. Chief Little Thunders shirt reminds the Lakota people who they are and their unique place in the world.
As a culture, we need more “holy shirts” and better stories that remind us of our best selves and sustaining values, instead of the daily feed of stories that dramatize our basest selves. Our survival as a species is not transmitted through our DNA, but through our stories.