ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The ancestral remains of Native American tribes that once called the cliffs of Mesa Verde National Park home will be repatriated as part of an agreement between Finland and the United States.
The White House on Wednesday announced the agreement involving the remains of about 20 people and 28 funerary objects taken from the Mesa Verde area more than 100 years ago. The remains and artifacts were unearthed during excavations by a Swedish researcher in 1891 and hundreds of items eventually became part of the collection of the National Museum of Finland.
President Donald Trump and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto acknowledged the sanctity of the items to the more than two dozen tribes with cultural connections to the Mesa Verde region, best known for hundreds of stone dwellings that early inhabitants constructed in cliffsides, said U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
The agreement ensures the remains and items will be brought “to their proper resting place in the U.S,” Bernhardt said.
Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe, said tribes hope to receive the collection by early next year and would ensure funerary items are buried with the remains in the general area where they were taken, accompanied by a ceremony.
“I know we’ll work together as the various tribes that have interest in them,” Tenakhongva said. “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.”
The exact burial location won’t be publicized to prevent the site from being disturbed.
“They need to be returned there so they can safety 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.”
The agreement comes as U.S. lawmakers have pushed for legislation to ban collectors and vendors from exporting Native American ceremonial items. The proposal would close loopholes that have stifled efforts to retrieve Native American items that have shown up on the auction block in Paris.
In 2016, French dealers were forced to halt the sale of a ceremonial shield from Acoma Pueblo, a Native American village west of Albuquerque. Leaders from the New Mexico tribe said the shield was taken from their village decades ago.
A federal court earlier this year called for the shield to be released to the U.S. Embassy in Paris so it could be returned.
Efforts to return the Mesa Verde remains and items started in 2016 when tribes associated with the park began working with the Finnish museum to identify the collection’s human remains and funerary objects. An inventory was completed last year.
Federal officials must now craft a plan for the transfer of the remains and items to the tribes and pueblos.
The Hopi Tribe in northeastern Arizona was among those leading the repatriation effort. The other tribes with links to Mesa Verde include the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah; the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute in Colorado; 19 pueblos, and the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache tribes in New Mexico; and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas.
Navajo President Jonathan Nez said the agreement is a step in the right direction.
“This is an unfortunate and longstanding issue that many tribes have dealt with including the Navajo Nation,” he said.
E. Paul Torres, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said tribal leaders look forward to the repatriation and referred to the cultural items as “the sacred living footprints of our ancestors” and vital parts of the legacy that tribes strive to leave for future generations.
The excavations more than a century ago by the researcher Gustaf Nordenskiöld resulted in his arrest in 1891 when he tried to export the collection. He was later released because no U.S. laws had been broken.
Hopi officials said the case helped to sway public perception about the importance of protecting cultural resources. Later, the 1906 Antiquities Act was adopted, and Mesa Verde was established as a national park.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona.