NEW YORK &

An American Indian group, upset by the planned auction of a 30-pound chunk from the historic Willamette Meteorite, complained Thursday that the 10,000-year-old space rock's immense religious significance was ignored in making the piece available to the highest bidder.




But the owner of the fragment, noting the vast majority of the 15.5-ton meteorite remained untouched, said his sympathy for their complaints would not halt next month's sale. The piece from the world-renowned Willamette is expected to bring in more than $1 million.




The Willamette, discovered shortly after the turn of the 20th century, is considered a religious icon by the Oregon-based Clackamas tribe. The group's members, which named the meteorite Tomanowas, reached a deal seven years ago granting them annual access for a religious ceremony with the meteorite in its home at the Museum of Natural History.




Now a piece sliced from the rock's crown nearly a decade ago is one of 45 lots up for sale at an October auction dedicated to meteorites and related memorabilia.




"We are deeply saddened that any individual or organization would be so insensitive to Native American spirituality and culture as to traffic in the sale of a sacred and historic artifact," said Siobahn Taylor, of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which includes the Clackamas.




"As a tribe, we do not participate in such sales and auctions," said Taylor, whose group is based in Grand Ronde, Ore. "We view them with dismay."




The piece of the Willamette is the biggest draw at the upcoming sale by the Bonhams auction house. The meteorite is the largest ever discovered in North America and boasts a contentious history since its discovery in 1902.




Darryl Pitt, owner of the slice of the rock, said he understood the Grand Ronde's concerns.




"I'm saddened by their being saddened," Pitt said. "While I regret the Grand Ronde has taken offense, the bottom line is that a portion of the meteorite is simply changing hands."




The meteorite belongs to the Museum of Natural History, which swapped Pitt the small piece now up for sale in return for his half-ounce piece of a meteorite from Mars. The deal occurred in 1998, before the Grand Ronde group staked its claim to the Willamette.




According to Pitt, there are roughly 20 pieces of the Willamette in the hands of private collectors.




The meteorite was discovered in the Willamette Valley by a part-time Oregon miner, who removed it from land belonging to a local iron company. The miner charged a quarter to view the meteorite until a court order compelled him to return it to the iron company in 1905.




A New York philanthropist then paid $20,600 for the rock and donated it to the Manhattan museum.




In September 1999, the Clackamas tribe made a claim for ownership of the meteorite, which they believe was sent to earth by the Sky People. An agreement between the Grande Ronde Tribal Council and the museum was reached, keeping the Willamette in Manhattan.




The upcoming auction includes several other interesting items, such as the Brenham meteorite, recovered two years ago from a Kansas wheat field (estimated sale price $700,000); a complete meteorite slice, in the shape of a home plate, with translucent crystals ($100,000); and a chunk of a meteorite that killed a Venezuelan cow ($4,000).