In 1891, ancestral remains belonging to the Pueblo tribes of the Mesa Verde region began a long and unexpected journey when they were taken from their resting place in Colorado, United States. A journey which culminated in them arriving halfway across the world in Finland.
This September, 129 years later, the ancestors took their final voyage when they were reunited with the tribes and laid to rest for the last time.
The story began when Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a young Swedish geologist and explorer of Finnish-Swedish descent, arrived in the Mesa Verde region in search of significant cultural findings and a cure for tuberculosis.
Nordenskiöld undertook what was possibly the first scientific excavations in the area. His seminal research and documentation, particularly on the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, proved groundbreaking and led to new developments in the field of archaeology.
Among the collection of artefacts amassed by Nordenskiöld were the human remains of roughly twenty Pueblo Indians— indigenous tribes native to the Mesa Verde region—which he had extracted from graves.
Although this caused quite a stir among the locals and led to Nordenskiöld being temporarily arrested, there were no laws prohibiting the excavation and sale of grave artefacts at the time and they were ultimately shipped to Sweden.
Nordenskiöld’s actions raised ethical questions which laid the foundation for the Antiquities Act of 1906 and led to Mesa Verde becoming a national park under government protection.
(The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property now dictates how items of cultural significance are to be handled.)
Finnish physician and collector Herman Frithiof Antell purchased Nordenskiöld’s Mesa Verde collection and bequeathed it to the Finnish state upon his death. The collection eventually found its way to the depository of the National Museum of Finland.
Previous attempts were made to reclaim the remains for the tribes decades ago, but these proved unsuccessful. Discussions were renewed four years ago when the museum was contacted again. Thus began the long and at-times arduous process of repatriation.
As the artefacts were the property of the Finnish government, the museum required an official request from the United States government. The matter was brought up for discussion and fast-tracked when Finnish President Sauli Niinistö met with then-President of the United States Donald Trump at the White House in October 2019.
The United States Embassy in Finland and U.S. Ambassador to Finland Robert Pence played a key role in facilitating the process.
The artefacts in question included the ancestral remains and 28 funerary objects, which hold great cultural and spiritual significance for the descendants of the Pueblo tribes.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 grants descendants the right to reclaim human remains and sacred objects. While several items have been returned to Mesa Verde, this was the first international repatriation.
The museum conducted a reinventory in 2017 and had already listed which items were to be returned by the time the formal request was made. Owing to the sensitive nature of the material in question, the museum has never displayed the ancestral remains for public viewing.
It was originally proposed to bring the tribes to Finland in Spring so they could escort the remains back themselves; however, the COVID- 19 pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions put a dent in these plans.
Instead, the National Museum of Finland worked closely with a coalition of Pueblo Indians represented by the Hopi, Acoma, Zia and Zuni tribes to determine how to transport the remains in a safe and respectful manner.
Through a series of online meetings, the tribes conveyed how the items were to be packed and transported. The museum’s conservation labs had to handle the artefacts with great care, not just because the ancient relics—which are thought to date back to the thirteenth century—were fragile, but also because of the intrinsic value they held for the Pueblo Indians.
Eero Ehanti, Head of the Conservation Department at the National Museum of Finland, took on the role of courier and was part of the team that escorted the artefacts from Finland to the Mesa Verde National Park. The team also included the museum’s Director General Elina Anttila, the Ministry of Education and Culture’s Counsellor Zabrina Holmström and from the United States Embassy in Helsinki, Ambassador Pence, his wife Suzie Pence and Public Affairs Officer William Couch.
The tiresome journey took approximately 25 hours and involved two stopovers -- Helsinki to London, London to Dallas and Dallas to Durango, from where they proceeded to Mesa Verde.
As a courier, Ehanti was privy to how the items were packed. He was consequently granted a rare and remarkable honour—he was allowed to witness the ritualistic reburial ceremony of the Pueblo Indians.
It is an opportunity that few get to experience in their lifetime, and Ehanti is unable to reveal the details of the ceremony due to a binding agreement he made with the tribes. He is, however, able to communicate how it made him feel.
“To be there, to witness this in a place of amazing natural beauty with breathtaking scenery, that was a meditative experience for me,” says Ehanti.
The ceremony began in the early hours of Sunday morning on 13 September, the day after the team arrived in Mesa Verde, and lasted for several hours. Ehanti greatly appreciates the privileged position he was in.
As he began to be drawn into the immersive experience, he soon forgot his role as the courier. “I was afraid that they would not appreciate my presence there as somebody not belonging to any of the tribes,” he admits. However, the tribes made him feel welcome and did not treat him like an outsider.
According to Ehanti, the rituals the tribal members undertook for their ancestors were “extremely touching.” He was struck by the strong ties that bind the Pueblo Indians to their geographical location and the spirits that inhabit it, reverberating through generations. “I could see the link that they have with this place and with their ancestors,” he reflects.
This made him consider his own roots and background, which he describes as diverse. “For me this opened the door to a totally different worldview.” Ehanti began to see himself becoming someone’s ancestor someday.
A growing number of anthropologists are recommending that researchers and museums take a more humanising approach to ancestral remains, as indigenous communities do not view them as objects or relics, but rather, revere them as human relatives.
This is consistent with Ehanti’s observations on the Pueblo Indians. “They never called them human remains. They were ancestors and real people. And that’s a beautiful way to see it, and perhaps different from how such things are seen from a museum perspective or scientific point of view,” he notes.
After a celebratory dinner that followed the ceremony and a four-day mourning period, the team headed to Washington DC, where the museum’s Director General Anttila met with President Trump and other dignitaries to discuss the repatriation.
The National Museum of Finland still has an additional 535 items from Nordenskiöld’s original collection (dated from the 6th to the 14th centuries AD) in their possession, but these consist primarily of ordinary household objects that may be displayed without ethical objections. They can be viewed online in the museum’s digitised inventory here.
In a press release, representatives of the Pueblo Indian tribes stressed the importance of intercultural dialogue and emphasised the value of the fact that their ancestors are now at peace.
The repatriation of museum artefacts is a hotly debated topic, particularly within the context of colonialism. Prominent museums such as the Louvre have been denounced for displaying objects that activists allege were once stolen from colonised nations.
Ehanti believes that indigenous communities in particular have a valid claim to certain objects. “These items have links to various communities and individuals,” he says. However, he advocates a balanced approach.“If everything were returned to where it came from, a lot of the museums would be pretty empty,” he reflects. “Museums are amazing places to learn about cultures.”
The National Museum of Finland plans to transfer some 2,600 Sámi artefacts to the Sámi Museum Siida in 2021.