After more than 100 years in a museum in Finland, the ancestral remains of Native American tribes that once called the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park home are coming back to Southwest Colorado.
Last week, it was announced human remains and funeral objects from the ancestral Puebloan people, which were unearthed by a Swedish researcher in the 1890s and sent off to Europe, would be returned as part of an agreement between the United States and Finland.
The news has been lauded by Native American tribes, who can finally put to rest their ancestors who were disturbed all those years ago. And, it sends a message of hope that other remains out there, scattered across the globe, can one day return.
Bernadette Cuthair, director of planning and development for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, said news of her ancestors coming home hits hard. For years, people have been looting and grave robbing her ancestors’ homes, an act she said her people refer to as a “spiritual violation.”
But finally, it feels like there’s a push to put right mistakes in the past.
“It’s like an awakening,” she said. “Any human remains are very sacred to us. And we have to make it right again.”
The vast cliff dwellings and ruins at what is now Mesa Verde National Park were first discovered by the Western world in the 1870s by the Hayden Survey, one of the first and most extensive expeditions into the American West.
Almost immediately, artifacts from the ancestral Puebloan people, who inhabited the region from about 900 to 1250, were exploited and pillaged.
In 1891, a Swedish researcher, Gustaf Nordenskiöld, who was staying in Denver, caught wind of a lost civilization of cliff dwellings in Southwest Colorado and took the train down to Durango to see for himself. Awed by what he found, Nordenskiöld set out to meticulously document and record his findings.
“He thought this was a civilization that ought to be documented, that it was a story that ought to be told,” said Judith Reynolds, a Durango resident who wrote a biography about Nordenskiöld in 2006 with her husband, David.
Nordenskiöld was concerned about all the looting and black market sales, and fearing for the ruin’s preservation, he started collecting artifacts himself. Through a series of shipments, the young scientist in his early 20s sent hundreds of tools, pottery and even human remains in crates to Europe.
But Reynolds said word started going around Southwest Colorado that a foreigner was stealing artifacts and cutting into the black market trade. While Nordenskiöld was taking his last shipment to the train depot for transport, the situation had reached a fever pitch, and he was arrested.
“It became an international story,” said Reynolds, a longtime contributor to The Durango Herald.
The case against Nordenskiöld was ultimately dropped – there were no laws at the time that criminalized taking Native American relics.
“So it just disappeared,” Reynolds said.
Nordenskiöld went back to Europe, and two years later, published the first scientific study about the ruins at Mesa Verde, a piece of work still considered the foundation to any contemporary research at the park.
But Nordenskiöld’s legacy, if anything, is a conflicted one.
His actions, oddly enough, in part sparked a sentiment that protections needed to be in place for Native American sites, culminating in the Antiquities Act of 1906, the first law that prohibited the looting of archaeological remains, and the establishment of Mesa Verde National Park the same year.
But still, Nordenskiöld is demonized by some for sending more than 600 artifacts to a far-off land, where they have remained at the Museum of Culture in Helsinki, Finland, since the early 1900s.
“For me, he’s the good guy because I understand the scientific approach he was about,” Reynolds said. “He was the first person to do a scientific study that recognized the importance of the history there.”
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto announced human remains and funeral objects collected by Nordenskiöld will be sent back to descendant tribes of the ancestral Puebloan people.
Reports indicate efforts to return the Mesa Verde artifacts started in 2016, when tribes associated with the park began working with Finland.
Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe, told The Associated Press the items should be received early next year.
“I know we’ll work together as the various tribes that have interest in them,” Tenakhongva told AP. “And how we process them will be the most carefully thought out plan so that we don’t do any more harm than what’s already been done.”
Human remains and funeral objects will ultimately be reburied near the grounds where they were unearthed.
“They need to be returned there so they can (safely) return to the spirit world, in the next world,” he said. “Hopi always believe, like most cultures and people, when you pass on you’re going to return to God or Jesus. And we return back to the hands of the creator who brought us here.”
In Native American culture, when the human remains of their ancestors are unearthed and sent off to a museum or lab, that person’s spirit becomes trapped on this earth, unable to take the next step into the afterlife.
“There’s an uneasiness,” said Ernest House Jr., a Ute Mountain Ute member who previously served as director for the Colorado Commission for Indian Affairs. “There’s a step not completed or fulfilled when those remains are kept outside tribal communities in storage boxes.”
“That’s why we want them returned and buried.”
In an emailed statement, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe commended news of the repatriation and the “honorable, humanitarian efforts” of associated tribes. And Cristy Brown, spokeswoman for Mesa Verde, said staff will work with tribes on reburials and ceremonies to take place in the park.
House said the announcement this week highlights the importance of repatriation issues on a national level and provides an example to other countries that may have Native American archaeological items – a problem, he said, that is widespread.
Native American remains have been more exploited than any other culture, House said. Years ago, for example, Mesa Verde National Park had a mummified ancestral Puebloan person on display. While there may be an educational aspect, House said, exploiting the remains of the people who once lived on these lands can be hurtful and culturally insensitive to descendant tribes.
“And we’re tired of that,” he said. “We just want these remains to be respectfully returned to the tribes and put back in place.”