News

Auction House Repatriates Sacred Indigenous Items, Possibly a Human Scalp

After activists contested the sale of Indigenous ceremonial items in Calgary from the collection of a late German trick roper, the items were abruptly removed and repatriated to Siksika Nation.
August 11, 2020, 4:32pm
​Items in the auction catalogue included a "Native walking stick" decorated with what looks like eagle feathers and a "dream catcher" shown with a possible scalp
Items in the auction catalogue included a "Native walking stick" decorated with what looks like eagle feathers and a "dream catcher" shown with a possible scalp. Photo and screengrab from Frank Hall Estate Sales website

“Native walking sticks” purportedly adorned with eagle feathers and a dreamcatcher that activists say may include a human scalp are among a dozen items removed from a private auction and repatriated to a First Nation community after a pressure campaign.

The items went up for auction last month at Frank Hall Appraisals and Estates in Calgary, Alberta, as part of a set of “very fine Plains Indians Material” from the collection of the late German trick roper and movie producer Frank Holt (born Frank Juergen Hoeldtke). The “majority” of proceeds from the sale would go to a charity, the auction house said, but did not specify which one.

But after a protest effort against the sale, the items were abruptly removed and repatriated to Siksika Nation, a nearby Blackfoot community, which will help to identify where they originated. 

Activists behind the campaign allege the auction house was profiting from Indigenous culture without properly identifying the objects being sold or consulting with affected First Nations. 

“These things are significant because they tie us to our ancestors,” said Jessica Swain, who is Cree-Métis and organized a protest at the auction house alongside Blackfoot activists. “It’s in the spirit of reclamation (and) it’s in the spirit of reconciliation.”

Swain said that she and other activists were concerned about the sale of ceremonial and spiritually significant items. 

“One of the big reasons why these items are available for sale is because these ceremonies were outlawed.”

From pictures of the collection on the auction site, some Indigenous activists suspected that items included in the auction, such as the walking sticks, were decorated with eagle feathers, which are illegal to sell in Canada under wildlife laws. The activists asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from the public. A representative from Alberta Fish and Wildlife said that an investigation was underway but could not provide further details.

Activists were also concerned that an item originally listed as a “dream catcher and beaded leather choker” included what appeared to be a human scalp. In the past scalps were occasionally used as part of Blackfoot war shirts, and have previously been repatriated from museum collections to Indigenous communities. The claim that the dream catcher included a human scalp could not be verified. Unlike the other items repatriated to Siksika, the listing for that item was removed from the website. 

Frank Hall appraisals declined to comment. The estate representing Frank Hoeldtke did not respond to several requests for comment. 

Also on the auction block were items tentatively listed “Sioux?” or “Blackfoot?”, as well as “(3) Spoons (2) of Chief Seattle” (a Squamish and Duwamish chief), and a “carved Haida totem pole.” Most listings did not include the object’s home nation.

Activists said a flurry of calls, emails, and social media posts, and even a protest at the auction house, were initially dismissed.

During the sale, the auction house distributed a letter announcing it had consulted with Siksika Nation and had proper documentation to show that the items were acquired legally.

The letter also noted that the auction house had returned a teepee included in the auction to Siksika. There was no mention of the other objects returned. According to the CBC, the auction house sold the teepee to Siksika Nation at a discounted rate.

Siksika Nation did not respond to a request for comment, but at the time Siksika Chief Ouray Crowfoot told the CBC, “It wasn’t for free but I would rather risk paying a little bit right now and getting that history back, than it going up for auction, and we never know where it’s at.” 

The letter also said that Hoeldtke had a “true love for First Nations and had forged lifelong friendships with many Indigenous peoples.”

But even with bills of receipt, the activists were concerned about how spiritually significant items entered the market in the first place.

Some of the items date to the Potlach and Sun Dance ban in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Indigenous ceremonies in Canada were illegal and often resulted in the confiscation of ceremonial items.

“One of the big reasons why these items are available for sale is because these ceremonies were outlawed,” Swain said.

Swain said Holt might have been asked to hold onto the items during the ban.

Other items, such as children’s quill-work moccasins, could have entered the market because residential schools often prohibited children from wearing traditional clothing.

While public museums have been the focus of high-profile repatriation campaigns—including the Benin Bronzes, a series of statues from the Kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria that are held in the British Museum—private auctions have also been targeted in recent years. 

In 2016 Native American leaders from the Hupa and Navajo Nations as well as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs condemned a French auction house for selling hundreds of Indigenous items, including a Plains Indian war shirt containing human scalps. In 2009 the auction house Sotheby’s returned two disputed Wampum belts after the Onondaga nation asked for them to be repatriated. 

In New Zealand, Maori people have blocked a number of major private auctions, said Haidy Geismar, an anthology professor at University College London who studies Indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights.

“One of the main tensions that has emerged around the sale of Indigenous ritual cultural artifacts is the problem of regulating the private collector’s market,” said Geismar. “Unless it can be clearly demonstrated that an object was stolen (as private property) or looted (as cultural property), it’s pretty hard to intervene in a sale legally.”

On its website, the auction house labelled Hoeldtke’s estate as the “most important collection seen on the market in many years.”

Since then, Frank Hall, the owner of the auction house, has told the CBC that the collection “isn’t that important.”

Follow Josh Gabert-Doyon on Twitter.