Ancestral remains, items to return to tribes through agreement between U.S. and Finland

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — An agreement between the United States and Finland will result in the return of ancestral remains and funerary objects that were removed more than a century ago from southwest Colorado.

The remains and items will be repatriated from a museum in Helsinki and eventually returned to pueblos and tribes traditionally associated with Mesa Verde National Park. No date was listed in the release for such action to occur.

The agreement was made between President Donald Trump and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö last week and it was announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior on Oct. 2.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in the release that the two leaders "acknowledged the sanctity" of the items to the pueblos and tribes in the region.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt stands in a room at Pueblo Bonito, Tuesday, May 28, 2019, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The release states there are 26 federally recognized tribes that have become associated with the national park, including the Navajo Nation.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement that the removal and repatriation of items has been an "unfortunate and longstanding issues" for tribes.

"A few years ago, the Navajo Nation was successful in recovering a number of sacred artifacts from an auction house in Paris," he said. "I can't emphasize enough that if it has happened to the Navajo Nation then I'm certain it is happening all across Indian Country."

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt look out over Pueblo Bonito, Tuesday, May 28, 2019, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

A delegation from the Navajo Nation purchased seven ceremonial masks at an auction in Paris in December 2014.

Nez added that the agreement between the two countries is "a step in the right direction."

In recent years, federal lawmakers have introduced bills to stop collectors and vendors from exporting ceremonial items from tribes to sell in foreign markets.

How remains, items went to Finland

The remains and items were removed during excavations in the Mesa Verde area in 1891 by Swedish researcher Gustaf Nordenskiold, according to the Interior Department press release.

The artifacts eventually became part of the ethnographic collection at the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki, the release states.

The release further explains that the museum completed an inventory of the collection in June 2018 and numbered more than 600 items, including the remains of 20 individuals and 28 funerary objects.

The 26 tribes associated with Mesa Verde National Park worked with the museum in 2016 to identify the remains and artifacts they intended for repatriation, an action supported by the Interior Department and the U.S. Department of State.

"The U.S. will be working diligently on arrangements to transfer the remains and items to identified recipient pueblos and/or tribes," the release states.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at

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