Theft Of Sacred Items Damages Hopi Way Of Life

SECOND MESA, Ariz. - The ancient secrets are here, in the villages atop the mesas, held fast in the underground ceremonial chambers, kept close by the priests and the elders.

These are the secrets about how the first Hopis, the first ``virtuous people,'' traveled to their home in the desert. These are the secrets about Dawn Woman and the rain spirits, about prayer feathers and the Plumed Serpent, about the Salt Rocks, the solstice and the seasons. The secrets about the Hopi way.

But the Hopi way is dying now. Their prized eagles are no longer nesting under the rocky brows of the mesas. Road crews working on the reservation have demolished thousand-year-old shrines. Rattlesnake nesting areas have been plowed under, endangering the traditions of the Snake Dance.

And looters, the thieves of time, have done tremendous harm, coming to the reservation with police scanners, helicopters and backhoes to steal artifacts from the ancient ruins and graves. The thefts began a century ago - thousands of items taken - and they continue today.

Other tribes across the country have had their patrimony plundered as well - the Pawnee, Zunis, Utes, Navajos. Looters have been unearthing Caddo Indian burial mounds on public and private lands all over northeast Texas. One leading museum director calls it ``cultural strip-mining.''

But no tribe has been as damaged as the Hopis, and not just by a casual collecting of arrowheads or even by the more serious practice of ``pot-hunting.'' The Hopis are having their religion carried away.

As many as two-thirds of all the clan or society pieces - the artifacts the Hopis consider sacred or religious - have been stolen, according to Dr. Barton Wright, an anthropologist and former museum curator who has studied the Hopis for 35 years.

``Every village has something missing,'' he said.

The theft of three of the four pieces of a sacred construction known as the ``talatumsi,'' or Dawn Woman, has had by far the most devastating effect on the Hopis. An irreplaceable part of the tribe's manhood-initiation ceremony, the ``talatumsi'' has been missing from its shrine in Shungopavi village since 1978. As a result, no Hopi boys have been initiated in a dozen years.

The FBI is still pursuing the case - agents have even tracked down leads in West Germany - and sources in the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix, Ariz., said recently that they were encouraged by new clues.

But until the ``talatumsi'' is returned, an entire generation of men is being passed by. The most drastic scenario - but one that is entirely plausible - would mean the end of Hopi ceremonial culture, nothing less than the death of an ancient civilization.

Said Peter Welsh, chief curator of the renowned Heard Museum in Phoenix: ``If this was happening with Catholics or Jews, there'd be such an outcry.''

The Hopis, who for ceremonial and religious purposes have always organized themselves into secret clans and societies, are still among the least acculturated of all the Native American tribes. There are some 9,000 Hopis living in 12 villages clustered on three mesas in remote northeastern Arizona, and their insulation is further reinforced by geography: Their 2.5 million acres are entirely surrounded by the Navajo reservation.

But while they keep to themselves, the Hopis have been none too successful in keeping their sacred objects to themselves. And they can't simply ``manufacture'' new ones.

``We just don't reproduce these objects,'' said Leigh Jenkins, the tribe's cultural preservation director. ``When they're stolen and sold, you affect the life-ways of the Hopi. The Hopi religion is not for sale.''

But it IS for sale, in a vigorous international black market for antiquities. A Hopi mask of buckskin, gourds and eagle feathers made 150 years ago can bring as much as $100,000 in the underground art markets of Santa Fe, New York, Berlin and Tokyo.

``It's big business - there's no telling where these things will turn up,'' said Jack Loughney of the FBI office in Phoenix.

The most celebrated case of missing Hopi artifacts began in Dallas in 1980. By the time it ended more than six years later, it resembled a mystery, full of FBI agents and Indian purification rites.

It started when Meryl Platt, a Chicago art dealer, sent John A. Buxton transparencies of three masks with gourd horns, which she was offering for sale.

``I had no idea what they were,'' said Buxton, who owns Shango Galleries in Dallas and deals in Native American art, ``although I thought they were Hopi.''

Buxton sent the pictures to Wright, an anthropologist whom he knew to be an expert in Hopi artifacts. His appraisal: These were sacred clan pieces, known as chiefs-of-direction masks, part of a quartet meant to correspond to the points of the compass. He also said that they'd been stolen from the reservation and that the FBI was hot on their trail.

Buxton said he immediately called Platt and told her he wasn't interested: ``I said, `You don't have any business having these. You ought to take the appropriate action.'''

It wasn't long before the FBI knocked on the door of Buxton's Turtle Creek condo. As he invited the agents in, he said, ``I made a joke about `What's stolen today?'''

But the agents weren't joking. They said he was accused of supplying the stolen masks to Platt. Then they read him his rights.

According to Special Agent Bill Keefe, who handled the case for the Chicago FBI office, Platt sold the masks to two Chicago collectors after Buxton refused to buy them. She arranged for the collectors to give the masks to the Art Institute of Chicago in a tax-break deal: She actually sold the pieces for $11,770, but certified to the Art Institute that they were worth $37,500.

Her downfall came when the institute briefly displayed one of the masks and Wright happened to see it. He contacted the FBI.

Platt told the FBI she'd gotten the masks from Buxton, but after questioning Buxton at length, the FBI became convinced of his innocence.

Finally, in March 1986, Meryl Platt pleaded guilty to felony tax and embezzlement charges. Her sentence: some community service, a suspended five-year term and a $1,000 fine.

``Reprehensible,'' said Buxton. ``She should have gone to the slammer.''

The legalities settled, it fell to Keefe to take the masks - which the Hopis refer to as ``friends'' - back to the reservation.

Most clan pieces are either kept in ``kivas,'' the subterranean ceremonial chambers of the Hopi, or hidden deep inside clan houses in the villages. All of these are virtually impenetrable by non-Hopis.

``Dealers aren't going into the villages and stealing this stuff,'' said Jordan Davis, co-owner of the Morningstar Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M. ``The Hopis themselves are stealing it - 9 1/2 times out of 10 it's the Indians.''

Hopi tribal officials admit privately that alcoholic, drug-addicted or impoverished Hopis are the likely culprits in the thefts of profound pieces from private places.

``Unfortunately, Hopis are sometimes involved,'' said Jenkins, the cultural preservation director. ``As a Hopi in my right mind, though, I wouldn't even take my `friend' outside the village.''

Although ownership is a slippery concept among the Hopi, it is widely accepted that no one person can ``own'' clan or society pieces, which are entrusted to an elder but are still communally held. Thus, if such a piece appears off the reservation, it has unquestionably been stolen.

The real dispute about ownership comes with ceremonial pieces that are important - but not absolutely crucial - to the religion.

Many dealers and collectors - and some of the Indians less taken with the traditional ways - believe these artifacts can be individually owned.

``The younger (Hopi) people are thinking more in the present day,'' said Joshua Baer, a well-known Santa Fe dealer. ``They want to make some money off pieces they've inherited or bought from another Hopi.''

Tradition-minded Native Americans, however, maintain that anything old or even vaguely ceremonial - a Hopi rattle, a Navajo weaving, an 18th-century Acoma pot - is part of their endangered tribal patrimony and should remain on the reservation.

This hard-line approach has created an angry backlash against some Indian claims. Gone are the days when a Hopi, for example, could successfully walk into a gallery or a museum, point at something and say, ``That belonged to my great-grandfather, and I want it back.''

``The dirty little secret of all this is that the Hopis want it both ways,'' said Baer. ``They want to sell things, and they want to get them back.''