More than a century ago, a European visitor took more than 600 Native American remains and artifacts from Colorado’s Mesa Verde
When Swedish researcher Gustaf Nordenskiöld arrived at Mesa Verde in 1890 and surveyed the ancient cliff dwellings, he seemed to have the best of intentions.
But his subsequent efforts to meticulously — and urgently — unearth and catalog the human remains and artifacts of the tribes who once inhabited the area unfolded in a period of rampant excavation, a busy black market for antiquities and scarcely any regard for the cultural significance of the objects rediscovered in southwest Colorado.
To the white residents, he was just a foreigner elbowing his way into a lucrative business. To the Native Americans in the region, he was just another thief. Still, he managed to load hundreds of items onto a train and ship them east. Eventually, they wound up at the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki, where they provided a cornerstone exhibit that fed the growing European fascination with North America’s indiginous civilizations.
More than a century later, many of those items — including 20 sets of human remains and 28 funerary objects — will find their way back to the region, where a group of native tribes will repatriate them and, perhaps, mark another turning point in evolving efforts to return artifacts to indigenous people.
The announcement, which coincided with a state visit by Finnish President Sauli Niinisto to the U.S. last week, represents a new and significant step forward in discussions that date back to 2014. It also shines a light on a unique character in Colorado history whose visit to the state, and unscheduled detour to Mesa Verde, led to what many consider a groundbreaking development in the difficult conversation around repatriation.
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