Advocates for the preservation of Native American heritage successfully prevented the sale of an Indigenous skull at an auction house in North Carolina last week.
Crystal Cavalier-Keck, an Indigenous advocate of the Occaneechi band of the Saponi tribe, uploaded several TikTok videos about the Mebane Antique Auction Gallery in North Carolina listing a 600-year-old Indigenous skull for sale.
“There’s nothing that we can do about it in the state of North Carolina,” she said in the video, citing the lack of lack of federally recognized tribes nearby and the wide-ranging estimate of $100 to $10,000. “The bid is already up to $1,700.”
The online listing for the small skull, Lot 243, describes it as “completely original, missing some teeth” and dated its previous purchase to a Montreal antique store sometime in the 1960s. It also said “This item is not covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) as it was found prior to 1981.”
“I think it’s disgusting that the owner of this art auction house is selling off bones of a Native American person,” Cavalier-Keck said. “Would you want someone selling your ancestors’ bones?”
The case highlighted how local officials can misinterpret state and federal laws in regards to human remains from Native American communities. While the sale of human remains is still legal in many states, experts like archaeology Stephen Davis told The News & Observer that NAGPRA means Native American human remains are excepted from those policies.
After Cavalier-Keck posted about the auction on TikTok, approximately 25 protestors from several different tribal groups showed up to the auction house on March 25. Aside from the skull, which Cavalier-Keck estimated was of a small child for its size, there were also several other Native American historical items.
Cavalier-Keck ended up successfully bidding $220 on Lakota Nation Ghost Dance regalia to prevent it from being purchased by someone else and culturally appropriated. “I just cannot imagine someone having that spiritual item in their house or then even trying to …wear it,” She told The Daily Beast. “That is a very sacred item and no one should be touching it and definitely not wearing it.”
Marion Werkheiser, an attorney for the American Indian Sappony tribe, emailed the auction house at 12:30pm during the “Fine American and American Antiques” event demanding an immediate stop to the sale of the small skull. “The Tribe believes Mebane Antique Auction Gallery’s possession of these remains is unlawful and any sale of these remains is illegal,” she wrote.
John Lambert, the owner of the auction house eventually pulled the skull from the event. He called the protesters “sad” and told The News & Observer they were “trying to get attention” for not trying to speaking with him prior to the auction about their concerns.
“The only reason I took it out of the sale yesterday is to satisfy these crazies,” he said, adding that he was unsure of the skull’s authenticity.
Owner Lee Walker doubted the likelihood of the skull being a replica. Walker also told The News & Observer that he and his wife planned on working with tribal members to repatriate the remains after learning about their concerns during the auction.
“I have no problem working with anyone looking to repatriate it to wherever it should be,” he said.