By Kevin Simpson

The Colorado Sun

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.

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.

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