I cover Indian Country as a reporter for NPR member station KJZZ from a base in Flagstaff, which is on the edge of the country's largest reservation. So, I've educated myself about Navajo and Hopi cultural practices. This story, though, really tested me as a reporter and as a member of my community.
Back in April, I reported on a Paris auction house that sold 70 Hopi sacred items. The tribe asked that the sale be halted, saying the items were stolen and belonged on its reservation in northern Arizona. The Hopi religion is shrouded in secrecy, so the tribe was in a bind. Tribal leaders wanted the media's help to bring attention to the sale, but they didn't want to talk about what those items were.
When the news of the auction first broke, photos of the ceremonial objects were widely published online. The sacred objects were described by journalists as masks or artifacts. This angered tribal leaders and led them to issue a statement:
"These sacred objects should be referred to only as sacred objects. Incorrectly labeling them is very disrespectful to the entire American Indian community and the Hopi Tribe.
"The following terms are deemed highly offensive and disrespectful when referring to sacred objects:
"It is also highly offensive and disrespectful to the Hopi Tribe for any images of the sacred objects to appear in print, on television or online."
I made a promise to Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, the director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, that I wouldn't use the previously mentioned words. He said Hopi children cannot know what they are. So in the first report I wrote for my local station (and for Fronteras, which is a network of public radio stations in the Southwest), I didn't use those words.
Instead, I said, "The Hopi call the [sacred objects] Katsina friends, and they are treated as such. The Hopi people use them in ceremonies and dances to call upon the spirits to bring them rainfall, healing and protection."
After the initial story aired, friends wrote to ask me about these sacred objects. I realized in order to explain why the tribe did not want the items sold, I had to explain to people what these objects were.
My second chance at the story was a feature for NPR. I told my editor Jason DeRose about my dilemma. He told me that a reporter's job is not to advocate. I am responsible to my audience. He said, you can explain that they don't want us using these words. So I still tried to find a way to explain what these items are without saying what they were.
I asked the Hopi chairman and council at a press event to explain how important these items are. But they were resolute. I asked in several different ways, and I'm pretty sure I offended them in my persistence. The chairman finally explained that it would be as if he went into a church, stole a cross and used it as a fencepost. That was helpful, but it still didn't say what they were.
I talked to my husband about it. He said, "it's like saying who Santa Claus is." Hopis wouldn't use that analogy, but I thought he's kind of right.
I turned to Robert Breunig, director of the Museum of Northern Arizona, for help. He's an anthropologist who has been going to Hopi dances for 40 years. I shared with him the Santa Claus analogy. And he said, "that's exactly what it is. That's trivializing it but [unlike Santa] the Katsinas are real."
So I started the first draft of my story with a disclaimer at the top so Hopis had a chance to turn the radio off. I wrote, "This story contains language sensitive to the Hopi people."
My editor said NPR uses that kind of disclaimer for graphic descriptions of issues like sexual violence. I told him, I live here. I cannot live with myself and use these words, if we don't have at least a disclaimer. Also, I talk to the Hopi tribe often for stories. I cannot burn bridges.
We compromised, and I wrote, "This story contains language so sensitive to the Hopi people that the tribe doesn't even want us to describe what the sacred objects are."
So I used the word "masks" for the sake of clarity even though Hopi tribal leaders asked us not to use the term. But I asked NPR — and NPR agreed — to take down its photo of a sacred object in its disembodied form and replace it with one of the photos I had taken of the Katsina dolls, which are allowed to be sold and displayed.
Many years ago the tribe made the decision to sell Katsina dolls to help the tribe's meager economy. And paintings of the Katsinas are sold all over Flagstaff. Both the dolls and the paintings look a lot like they are dressed for a religious ceremony. I found it perplexing that they were okay with selling the paintings and dolls but not OK with selling the, let's call them, headdresses.
But, the tribe argues the Katsina dolls and paintings do not embody the spirit of their ancestors in the same way as the sacred objects. Breunig told me that for the Hopi, selling one of these sacred items would be like auctioning off one of your children. OK, I get it.
In Monday's story, an update to the April reports, we learn how art dealer Monroe Warshaw purchased two of the items at auction and later returned them to the reservation. That wasn't his original plan. Warshaw says he came to understand they belonged on the reservation after attending a Hopi ceremony on tribal lands. He had been invited to the ceremony by a doll carver. Warsaw was enchanted with the Hopi and very much moved by what he saw.
"To see these pieces being used, you realized that you couldn't own them because to them they are living beings," he said. "To own it was like ripping the heart out of an animal or something because these are sacred to them."
Even discussing the topic is hard for the tribal vice chairman who tells me he feels like he's eroding his culture every time he's asked to talk about it. Still, he hopes the publicity will bring more sacred items back home.