“We were elated, but our hearts were heavy.”
That was the feeling among members of the Hopi Tribe in the wake of an Oct. 2 press conference with President Donald Trump and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, according to Troy Honahnie Jr., chief of staff in the tribe’s Office of the Vice Chairman.
The Hopis were happy because it was announced during the media event that Finland had agreed to return Native American remains taken from the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in the late 19th century. The move came in response to an initiative the Arizona tribe had been spearheading for several years on behalf of pueblos and tribes in New Mexico and Utah.
Even if agreement to return the collection of 500 or 600 items (accounts vary) taken by Swedish nobleman Gustaf Nordenskjold in the 1890s didn’t dominate the news cycle, the Hopi helped spread the word of their diplomatic victory. They got help from the State Dept. and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who issued a statement ahead of his trip to Santa Fe last week to address the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association.
“President Trump and President Niinisto acknowledged the sanctity of these items to American Indian and Pueblo communities of the Mesa Verde region,” said Bernhardt in a statement. “President Trump’s strong leadership resulted in bringing these Native Americans’ remains and cultural artifacts home to their proper resting place in the U.S.”
In New Mexico, news of the promised repatriation was applauded by Native leaders and cultural scholars. “This is very meaningful to tribes, to accept these objects for reburial,” said Della Warrior, director of the Santa Fe’s Museum for Indian Arts and Culture who is also former president of the Institute of American Indian Arts and former chief executive officer of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma.
Matthew J. Martinez, the museum’s deputy director and a member of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, said New Mexico pueblos deferred to the Hopis in the negotiating process because the Arizona tribe “was well-organized to handle repatriation and for getting protocol established.”
The pillage of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, home to the Ancestral Puebloan people from 600 to 1300 A.D., is well known to archeological experts such as Southern Methodist University professor Mike Adler, director of SMU’s Taos campus. In the 1890s, the Alamo Ranch near Mesa Verde was “basically a dude ranch for digging,” Adler said.
After Nordenskjold arrived in New York with two railroad cars full of Native remains and objects, U.S. Customs officials tried to prevent him from taking the excavated material outside the U.S., Adler said. They were unsuccessful, but the Nordenskjold affair became a cause célèbre that ultimately led to the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906, the first law requiring the federal government to protect and preserve archeological sites on public lands.
The eldest son of polar explorer Baron Adolf Erik Nordenskjold and his aristocratic wife, Anna Maria Mannerheim, Gustaf Nordenskjold came from a family of scientists and is considered the first explorer to scientifically study and document Pueblo peoples of the Southwest.
“By today’s standards, Nordenskjold was a looter, but he also wrote the seminal book ‘The Cliff Dwellers of Mesa Verde, Southwestern Colorado: Their Pottery and Implements,’ ” Adler said, so his legacy is mixed.
There are 26 federally recognized tribes traditionally associated with Mesa Verde National Park, according to the Department of the Interior, and each has worked with the National Museum of Finland to identify remains and funerary items to be repatriated. Coordinating this process until recently was Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, who retired as director of the Hopi Tribe’s cultural preservation office in 2017 after 30 years in the job.
In a telephone interview, Kuwanwisiwma said he was long aware of the Native objects in Finland through books, but it wasn’t until 2013 that he began the repatriation effort by bringing the issue to the attention of three other tribes – Zuni, Acoma and Zia – which were representing the 19 pueblos of New Mexico and other Native peoples affected by the issue.
In 2014, Kuwanwisiwma met with all the tribes and received the go-ahead for the Hopi to take the administrative lead in trying to get Finland to return the Native objects, which include the remains of at least 20 individuals. “It was a unanimous vote,” he recalled.
Although Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990 to protect sacred tribal objects and remains, this law governs domestic issues, Kuwanwisiwma pointed out, and was of little assistance in bringing back the collection housed in Finland.
The next step was getting the State Department and Bureau of Indian Affairs involved, which happened in 2015, said Kuwanwisiwma. “They were surprised there was a collection of Hopi and pueblo remains,” in a foreign museum, he said. “They were surprised we were pursuing repatriation. They had never been involved with repatriation. It was a one-of-a-kind case.”
During President Trump’s press conference with President Niinisto, the U.S. Ambassador to Finland, Robert Pence (no relationship to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence), said when he arrived in Helsinki about a year and a half ago, “there was a stack of papers on the desk, one of a couple of which concerned indigenous peoples from the southwestern United States – Arizona, Colorado – but generically I will refer to them as Hopi Indians. … their remains had been excavated and removed to Finland with about 500 artifacts.”
Pence said, “Through the good offices of our State Department, but in particular, President Niinisto and his entire team … those remains will be going back to where they were buried.”
Kuwanwisiwma is standing by for the reburials. By his reckoning, he has been involved in the reinterment of 9,000 individuals and 15,000 funerary objects during his career.
Not all tribes and pueblos are prepared to act immediately when remains are repatriated, though. In Santa Fe, the Center for New Mexico Archaeology, southwest of town on N.M. 599, stores remains and sacred objects until pueblos are ready to conduct ceremonies that accompany reburial, Warrior said. The facility is part of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
There are rumors that not all the objects housed in the National Museum of Finland may be coming back to the U.S. Even if the museum holds on to pottery, Native leaders said that the most important thing is having remains returned for reburial.
“These individuals must continue on the journey into the next world. A small fix like this can go a long way toward helping heal relationships between nations and protecting the planet from climate change,” said Hopi Vice Chairman Clark W. Tenakhongva.