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The Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, as photographed by Swedish researcher Gustaf Nordenskiold in 1891. He took more than 600 Native American artifacts, including several sets of human remains, home with him, and they wound up in the National Museum of Finland. Now, many of them will be headed back to Colorado for repatriation. (Courtesy of Mesa Verde Archive)

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 indigenous civilizations.

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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.

Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi in Arizona, said his tribe will handle the administrative aspects of the return, while the Zia, Zuni and Acoma represent more than a dozen pueblos from the area in the transaction.

The Hopi initiated internal discussions on how to approach the issue. Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, until recently director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, then brought on a private consultant to help with the international inquiry, the tribe says.

Hopi Tribal Council Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva. (Photo provided by Hopi Tribe)

The items could be returned early next year and will be reburied in the vicinity of where Nordenskiöld found them. Such ceremonies are intensely private and according to Native American belief allow the individual to continue their journey to the next world.

Within the U.S., both newly discovered remains and those in public museums are subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. But international collections don’t fall under the 1990 law that seeks to return such objects to their rightful place. So the agreement with Finland represents a high-profile gesture that could extend the growing sensitivity toward cultural artifacts beyond U.S. borders.

“We’re grateful to the Finnish government to be accepted in this way,” Tenakhongva says. “The Hopi have had to constantly fight this battle with international actors, auction houses auctioning off our cultural patrimony. We’ve constantly been in the news the past 10 years to seek international cooperation to respect our culture.” 

Ernest House Jr., a member of the area’s Ute Mountain Ute tribe who formerly served as director for the Colorado Commission for Indian Affairs, applauded the news on multiple levels. While it exemplifies improving European repatriation efforts, it also creates a pathway to learning more about remains and artifacts that indigenous tribes have no idea may be sitting in museums overseas.

He notes that the United Nations has had conversations about repatriation, and just last June he visited the Netherlands to speak with a museum there interested in building a relationship with tribes here. 

“Repatriation is still a very early conversation,” House says. “Having said that, people we’ve talked to are interested in what those policies look like — how decisions are made at the local and tribal level. … Honestly, from a Native American standpoint, any time we have the ability to bring our ancestors home, or objects buried with our ancestors, that’s of huge significance and importance.”

For tribes who inhabited the area over many centuries, this announcement begins to close a long-open wound.

“For me, it’s been traumatizing ever since we recognized what happened,” Tenakhongva says. “In the 1900s, we uncovered the history of how much looting and vandalizing occurred. We’re still suffering the consequences of the first contact of non-natives to America, and the history endures today. This is only to mend the wounds they created here and do so with the best processes we can in putting remains back where they belong.”

Nordenskiöld didn’t plan to intersect with the archeology of the Mesa Verde area.

The son of a scientist and scientifically trained himself, he embarked on a world tour for a change of climate to treat his tuberculosis — as many people of means did at that time. Along the way, he wrote articles about various subjects to help finance his itinerary, which eventually took him to Denver.

There, he met a local botanist who told him about the ancient civilization in southwest Colorado. Intrigued, he took the train to Durango and, armed with a letter of introduction, connected with the Wetherill family, ranchers who showed him the area where collectors and profiteers successfully mined the landscape for evidence of ancient civilizations.

“He recognized how important this was as an archeological project,” says Judith Reynolds, who with her late husband, David, spent 10 years researching and writing a biography of Nordenskiöld. “When he toured some ruins, he saw how much looters and black-market traders had taken out.”

Gustaf Nordenskiold came to Colorado from Sweden and left a mixed legacy after finding and removing native remains and artifacts to Europe. His collection ended up in Finland, which has agreed to repatriate most of it, including 20 sets of human remains and 28 funeral objects. (Photo provided by Judith Reynolds, from Dr. Gustaf Arrhenius and the Nordenskiold family)

That inspired a sense of urgency to obtain his own artifacts. He tried to make it clear that he had undertaken a scientific project, as he logged the region’s flora and fauna as well as each new archeological find with documentation like location, time of day and photos — something Reynolds likens to a frontier GPS.

And here is where Nordenskiöld’s efforts kicked up dust in the Durango area.

Locals were of two minds about him: Some respected him for his scientific rigor; others viewed him as a European interloper eating into their market. As he prepared to send his archeological finds east, he was arrested and spent one night in jail before authorities could find no law under which they could charge him.

The controversy over this foreigner taking artifacts out of the country made news from Durango to Stockholm. But mostly, the concern — and his short-lived arrest — stemmed from fears over his possible impact on the local black market.

“That had more to do with it than with any concern about antiquities,” says Fred Blackburn, who also has written extensively about the region’s history. “Remember, we’re talking 1891. But he brought attention to archeology and the cliff dwellers — not just nationally, but internationally. In any case, he really did open up a can of worms.” 

For the tribes that occupy that corner of Colorado today, the difference between science and commerce remains irrelevant.

“Nordenskiöld excavated these human remains, funerary offerings and objects and other artifacts from what was then part of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation,” the Southern Ute tribe said in a statement. “By Treaty with the United States, the Tribe was entitled to ‘the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation’ of these lands. When Nordenskiöld removed these remains and other artifacts  he did so without the permission of the Tribe and by unlawfully trespassing on the Tribe’s lands.”

Terry Knight, a tribal preservation officer for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, puts the Native American view of the Nordenskiöld collection even more bluntly.

“The fact is, those items were taken from Mesa Verde,” he says. “That was after (the Wetherills) had taken other items, this guy went and followed them and took some more. They all stole those items, those artifacts from those cliff dwellings, without permission and became famous.” 

In 1893, Nordenskiöld published his findings in a large volume, “The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde,” that remains in print in both Swedish and English. Reynolds calls it a “foundational text.”

“Anthropology was yet to become a serious field of inquiry,” she says. “In the 1880s and ’90s, it was a time that Europeans started to look at world cultures in a different way. That’s what he saw when Richard Wetherill took him out there on horseback. He saw ruins of cliff dwellings and looting. He saw a civilization disappearing.”

Some also credit Nordenskiöld and his work for playing a part in the American Antiquities Act, the federal law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 that provided protections for historic and cultural sites as well as allowing for creation of national parks like Mesa Verde. It all makes for a complicated legacy of the young man who spirited more than 600 items across the ocean.

When he died of tuberculosis, he was just shy of his 27th birthday.

“‘He was guilty of living in his own time, as we are guilty of living in our time,’” Reynolds says, addressing his mixed legacy with a quote from her book. “This wasn’t last Friday. Nobody was tweeting.”

A ceramic pot from the collection of Gustaf Nordenskiold, which he unearthed in Colorado. The entire collection of more than 600 items from the Mesa Verde area wound up at the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki. (Photo provided by Museum of Cultures)

When the collection found its way to Sweden, Nordenskiöld carefully archived the contents — something that now looms large in recalling an era when many such artifacts disappeared into private collections.

Originally, he wanted it to have its home at the University of Stockholm. But through a complicated chain of events involving a Finnish family friend who wanted to establish a museum in Helsinki, the collection wound up leaving Sweden.

The collection became a cornerstone exhibit in Finland, Reynolds says, underscoring the significance of last week’s events.

“I think this is really important, because the whole issue of repatriation has been in the air for a long time,” she says. “This is a sovereign government offering to the U.S. repatriation of Native American remains from a valued collection. This is a major gift from Finland to the U.S. I think it will unlock a lot of doors on repatriation.”

So how will this one work?

Tenakhongva, of the Hopi tribe, anticipates that a cultural preservation director will visit the Helsinki museum to take recept of the remains and physically transport them back to Colorado. Because of the international nature of the transaction, he expects the State Department also will be involved.

“We’re thankful to the government of Finland for taking a major role in the first step toward something of a healing process,” he says. “We’re thankful and looking forward to a better relationship in the future, so we can both understand each other’s boundaries.”

Cliff Spencer, superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park, says that once the four tribes have received the 20 sets of remains and 28 funerary objects, they’ll contact Mesa Verde and arrange a date for reburial. 

“There’s an area where they’ve done prior reburials,” Spencer notes. “In 2006 there was a fairly large one, and another last year. It’s in a remote area visitors don’t normally see, far in the backcountry. We excavate graves, the tribal folks do their ceremony, and our folks fill them in.”

Shelby Tisdale, director of the Center of Southwestern Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, notes that even domestic repatriations are painstaking and difficult undertakings. Case in point: her center’s work since 1996 — and very actively over the last two years — with 26 different tribes on repatriating some of the unidentified remains in the school’s collection.

“It’s long overdue and probably this will set a precedent for other European museums to assess their collections,” Tisdale says. “But it’s a great first step.”

Blackburn, whose writing details much of the Wetherills’ history with Nordensköld, was shocked to hear that Finland had stepped up in this manner. 

“Honestly,” he says, “I would’ve lost money on this. I’d never believe this would occur. I think there was a lot of pride in Nordenskiöld’s collection, in him providing first scientific report on Southwestern archeology. That’s why I’m surprised that this happened. If we’re looking at collections in Berlin or in British or German museums … I’d like to see those given up. They’re probably still in boxes in a basement.

“Europeans don’t have much incentive to tell us anything,” Blackburn says of the repatriation. “That’s what I find intriguing and wonderful.”

House, the former state director of the Commission for Indian Affairs, finds it amazing that Nordenskiöld’s work will be coming full circle.

“To think that in 1891, his interest, whether good or bad and whatever, would relate to a fight that continues today to restore tribal respect and honor is a constant reminder that this is an ongoing process and conversation,” he says. “For this region, especially tribal cultures, it’s a huge opportunity for continued education around repatriation efforts.”

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...