The repatriation of 13th century remains and grave items to the Hopi Tribe, the Pueblo of Acoma, the Pueblo of Zia, and the Pueblo of Zuni—Indigenous Tribes of the United States—has seen ancestors finally laid to rest on their homelands.

An agreement between the National Museum of Finland and Pueblo Tribes saw the human remains of 20 ancestors and 28 artefacts returned for reburial in Mesa Verde, Colorado. The US Department of State and the US Embassy in Finland assisted the transportation of the ancestors and funerary items from the Finnish capital, Helsinki, to Mesa Verde.

The items were part of the Museum’s Mesa Verde collection. An ethnographic collection, it was originally compiled by Swedish and Finnish geologist, Gustaf Nordenskiöld, and holds around 600 Pueblo artefacts which are dated between the 6th and 14th centuries AD.

In 1891, Nordenskiöld took the items to northern Europe and sold them to a Finnish doctor. Following his death, the collection was bequeathed to the state of Finland and placed in the Museum in Helsinki.

Nordenskiöld’s removal of the remains led to the implementation of the 1906 Antiquities Act by the US Congress, and the establishment of Mesa Verde National Park.

Although Nordenskiöld was arrested for attempting to export the items at the time, there was no law in place to prosecute him. He was released and the collection was shipped to Stockholm, Sweden.

The repatriation process was the result of a long journey which began in 2016 when a private spokesperson representing the Hopi Tribe contacted the National Museum of Finland.

After many discussions and meetings, the Museum and the four Tribes entered into an agreement on August 28. On September 12, representatives from the Hopi, Acoma, Zia, and Zuni Tribes received the ancestors in Durango, Colorado.

The following day, after 129 years removed from their Country, the ancestors returned to Mesa Verde National Park.

Hopi Vice Chair Clark W. Tenakhongva expressed his gratitude.

“The Hopi People are thankful to everyone involved in ensuring our ancestors were returned to their rightful home and are afforded the respect all human people deserve—being allowed to rest in peace,” said Tenakhongva.

“The act of returning home has special significance in Hopi culture, for the return of our family both past and present is something to be celebrated.”

Governor Fredrick Medina of the Pueblo of Zia said the ancestors are “at rest where they belong”.

“Our hearts are happy that our ancestors have made their journey home … We are thankful to the Finnish Government and the National Museum of Finland, and are pleased to have forged this new relationship. The Pueblo looks forward to continue to work with the National Museum of Finland to repatriate all items of cultural value and historical importance to their rightful owners,” said Governor Medina.

Governor Brian D. Vallo, a representative of Pueblo of Acoma, hopes this can be a point of reference for other institutions.

“This engagement, which evolved between the Finnish government, the National Museum of Finland, the four repatriating tribes, and United States officials, ensured a safe and culturally-appropriate process for the return of ancestors and funerary items,” he said.

“It is our hope that comparable institutions throughout the world who have similar collections, will become motivated to engage in this level of nation-to-nation collaboration that results in repatriation and long-term partnerships, fostering dialogue and joint strategies for access to collections, stewardship, and programming.”

Whilst there are no requests or plans for the rest of the collection to be repatriated, dialogue between the Museum and the Tribe representatives will continue.

“It is great that the long-prepared repatriation has now been carried out in excellent cooperation between the parties. Throughout this delicate and emotional process, it has been of the utmost importance for us to respect the wishes of the Tribes,” said Elina Anttila, Director General of the National Museum of Finland.

“Finland is committed to international agreements and museum ethics principles that underline the importance of cultural property for the peoples of their countries of origin. The increasingly important task of the National Museum of Finland is to strengthen intercultural dialogue, diversity and everyone’s right to their own cultural heritage.”

By Rachael Knowles