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Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Charlie Day, a European American trader's son, costumed as a Navajo God Impersonator, in ceremonial dress including mask and body paint. c. 1904
Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mystery series. Titles include Bones of Contention, Bet Your Bones, Bonereapers, Her Boyfriend’s Bones, and Where the Bones Are Buried. Learn more about Jeanne and her books at her website. 

Appeasing the Spirits

Over the past two years, hundreds of Native American ceremonial masks have been sold at public auction in France. Both the Hopi and the Navajo peoples believe that these masks embody the living, breathing spirits of their ancestors. They transcend the idea of “art.” They are messengers to the gods. Both tribes regard the selling of the masks as a sacrilege, but have been forced to stand by and watch as these sacred icons are put on the auction block to be sold to the highest bidder. Even if they had the financial means, it would violate the Hopis’ religious beliefs to buy an ancestral spirit. In 2013, a charitable foundation purchased twenty-four Hopi masks called katsinam, and repatriated them to the tribe. But another fifty went under the auctioneer’s hammer, bringing in more than a million dollars.

Both the Hopis and the Navajos have protested and mounted legal challenges to the sales, but their claims were rejected by a French tribunal. The U.S. Embassy intervened on their behalf, urging French authorities to suspend the sales to allow the tribes’ representatives to discover whether the masks had been stolen or removed illegally from museums. The request was denied. It seemed that nothing could be done.

Then in December, 2014, the Navajo broke precedent. When negotiations and a plea to return their relics failed, a tribal delegation flew to Paris to bid on the items, themselves. They lacked the deep pockets of other bidders, but their main competitor deferred to their claim of rightful ownership and withdrew. A Navajo medicine man offered prayers to the spirits and the delegation returned to Arizona with their cherished ancestral deities. Following a nine-day ceremony, the horsehair, bone, and feather masks were disassembled and returned to the earth, and the spirits appeased.

Encouraged by the Navajo success, Hopi tribal leaders flew to Paris last June to try to prevent an auction of seven katsinam, but their attempts to stop the sale failed once again. And once again, the most avid bidders were German.

While traveling in Germany, I learned about der Indianer clubs, which exist throughout Germany and parts of Switzerland. The members, inspired by the books of a 19th century writer named Karl May, dress as Indians, adopt Indian names, erect tepees in their back gardens, hold drumming ceremonies and powwows, and collect Indian art.

Since my amateur sleuth Dinah Pelerin is half-Seminole, I thought this German fascination with Native Americans would make an entertaining premise for my next novel. In Where the Bones Are Buried, Dinah has moved to Berlin and landed a job teaching Native American cultures at Humboldt University. When her Seminole mother Swan pays a surprise visit to the city, Dinah finds herself drawn into the peculiar subculture of make-believe Indians.

A gallery owned by one of the club’s members is jammed to the rafters with Native American artifacts, including a Hopi katsinam of dubious provenance. But Indian antiquities aren’t the gallery’s only stock in trade. Hidden away in a dark corner is a sculpture she recognizes as Egyptian, recently looted from a museum during the riots following the ouster of President Morsi.

The revolution in Egypt and wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have resulted in the devastation of many archaeological and National Heritage sites and thieves have made off with many of the region’s cultural treasures. Dinah thinks she’s stumbled onto a gigantic fencing operation for plundered relics. Before she can substantiate her suspicions, one of the German “Indians” is killed and scalped and her mother becomes the prime suspect.

In the American Wild West of long ago, some Indians took the scalps of their enemies as trophies, and some white settlers returned the favor, going so far as to offer bounties for Indian scalps. But the very last thing Dinah expects to find in modern-day, uber-sophisticated Berlin is a scalping victim. Ghosts abound in the historic city. Reminders of its violent past are thick on the ground – a memorial to the Jews murdered by the Nazis, a memorial to the persecuted homosexuals, a memorial to the East Germans shot trying to escape across the Berlin Wall to the West, a memorial to the artists and writers killed because of their “decadent” paintings and books.

Dinah senses the presence of unhappy spirits everywhere, including that of her father, whose murder more than twenty years ago still haunts her. But as the evidence against her mother mounts, she grows more concerned about appeasing the German police than appeasing the spirits. There are almost as many lies in the air as there are ghosts. If she’s going to succeed in keeping her mother out of prison, she has to persuade her to stop speaking with a forked tongue – not only about the man she’s accused of scalping, but about the murder of Dinah’s father.

Where the Bones Are Buried
Dinah Pelerin has finally put her life in order. Living in Berlin with her boyfriend Thor, she has landed a job teaching Native American cultures at the university. She's never felt happier. And then her Seminole mother Swan shows up with a crazy scheme to blackmail a German tax dodger and dredges up a secret Dinah has kept hidden from the IRS and from straight-arrow Norwegian Thor, a former cop now with hush-hush international duties. Germans harbor a century-long fascination with the American Wild West and American Indians. Some enthusiasts dress up as Indians and adopt Indian names. Like Der Indianer Club which has invited Swan to a powwow where she plans to meet her blackmail victim. Dinah tries to head her off, but arrives at the scene too late. A man has been killed and scalped and Swan quickly becomes the prime suspect. Torn between love for her mother and dismay at her incessant lies, Dinah sets out to find the killer―hoping the killer doesn't turn out to share her DNA. But Swan isn't the only liar. Everyone is lying about something. Margaret, Swan’s dead ex-husband’s former wife, come to the city with Swan. Dinah’s teen-age “ward.” Thor. Especially Dinah. Ghosts of Germany's terrible history haunt Berlin while she faces exorcising a hateful ghost of her own.

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Angela Adams said...

Wow! Fascinating post!! Thank you!!!

cj petterson said...

cj Sez: Loved the post and the history that was in it. Writing about Native Americans is a big task because of all the nuances of their culture, and Tony Hillerman is one of my favorite authors in this genre. Looks like you've got great strength in the genre as well. Best wishes for continued success.

Jeanne Matthews said...

Because of her Native American ancestry, my main character has an instinctive empathy with the indigenous peoples of all the places she visits -- Australian Aborigines, Native Hawaiians, the Sami people of the Norwegian Arctic. But I was surprised and intrigued to discover the German's enduring fascination with American Indians. Der Indianer clubs provided a terrific inspiration for Where the Bones Are Buried.

Anne Louise Bannon said...

The German interest in Native Americans doesn't entirely surprise me. That being said, sales of antiquities to people outside a given culture has been a major problem for at least a couple hundred years now. Adding the spiritual element to the whole problem, in the case of the Hopi and Navajo, only makes it more of a concern.
Thanks for the good post.