Finland to repatriate American Indian artefacts to the United States from its national collections


Finland will be repatriating artefacts of human origin from the National Museum of Finland’s Mesa Verde collection to representatives of Native American peoples. The items, which are estimated to date back to the 13th century, were originally extracted from the graves of roughly 20 Pueblo Indians. In addition to human bones and mummies, goods found in the graves will be returned. The artefacts and remains are of particular importance to the descendants of North American Indian tribes. The remainder of the Mesa Verde collection consisting of some 600 items will remain in the possession of the National Museum of Finland. The Mesa Verde collection and the repatriation decision came up in the meeting between President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö and President of the United States Donald Trump on 2 October 2019.

“On an international scale, we have seen an increase in requests to repatriate a variety of original materials and items from museum collections to their countries and cultures of origin,” says Elina Anttila, Director General of the National Museum of Finland. “There are many aspects to consider with regard to repatriation, so every request and initiative is processed on a case-by-case basis. As a general rule, it would be good for the collection to remain intact, well-preserved and available to the scientific community. Alongside repatriation, other solutions can include increasing the accessibility of the collections, enabling item loans and engaging in active interaction with the countries of origin. In this case, we recognise that the grave goods and especially the human remains in our collection are of particularly great significance to representatives of Native American tribes, who also submitted an earlier unofficial request to repatriate the items,” Anttila says.

Minister of Science and Culture Hanna Kosonen confirms that Finland is approaching the repatriation request with great respect, and that the preconditions for the repatriation have been explored with the utmost care. “We at the Ministry of Education and Culture are very pleased with how the National Museum of Finland and United States authorities have handled the matter. It makes me very happy that we have been able to advance an important issue such as this in amicable cooperation.”

As regards the items to be repatriated from the Mesa Verde collection, the Museum will conduct some further investigations as to their appropriate storage in the United States and other details of the repatriation process. The repatriation will also require some legislative analysis and possible regulatory changes. The exact time when the items will be transported to the United States has not yet been established.

The important artefacts shed light on the lifestyle of American Indian cultures

The Mesa Verde collection, which falls under the National Museum of Finland’s ethnographic collections, was originally compiled by the Swedish geologist Gustaf Nordenskiöld, who first heard of the extensive ruined settlements of the Mesa Verde canyons in Denver, Colorado, in the spring of 1891. Nordenskiöld focused on studying modest habitat findings, which have been very helpful in illustrating the lifestyle of ancient American Indians. For quite some time, the collection, which has been studied and documented in great detail, was among the most significant in the world in shedding light on the native culture in the Mesa Verde area – and its importance remains substantial to this day.

The Finnish physician and collector Herman Frithiof Antell purchased the collection from Nordenskiöld and eventually bequeathed it to the Finnish state along with his other collections. The Mesa Verde collection includes some 600 Pueblo artefacts from the 6th to the 14th centuries. The National Museum of Finland has inventoried and digitised the collection, but photos of the bone findings cannot be publicised for ethical reasons. During his expedition, Nordenskiöld took plenty of photos of the excavations and artefacts. Some of these photos, which date back more than a hundred years, can be viewed via the digital materials list of Finnish museums at by entering the search term ‘Mesa Verde’.

International conventions regulating the traffic of cultural heritage items

Today, the export of cultural heritage items from their countries of origin is regulated by international conventions. In the 1890s, no such agreements existed, which meant that the flow of cultural artefacts and relics between countries was substantial to say the least. People in the Mesa Verde region of the United States recognised the problem towards the end of the 1890s, which led to the area being declared a national park in 1906.

In 1999, Finland ratified the 1970 Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property as well as the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. However, the export of the items in question from the United States in 1891 was not illegal and the current international conventions are not applied retroactively.

The National Museum of Finland has taken upon itself to approach all repatriation requests regarding its collection items with special respect and care. The Museum’s collections include more than 500,000 items, and a variety of materials documenting modern and historical phenomena are constantly being added to the number. A previous important repatriation decision was made in 2017, when the National Museum of Finland and the Sámi Museum Siida agreed upon the transfer of ownership of some 2,600 original Sámi artefacts from the National Museum to Siida. The parties are preparing the return process in collaboration, and the intention is to move the collections in 2021, once the appropriate facilities are completed at the Siida museum.

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For more information, please contact:

The National Museum of Finland

  • Director General Elina Anttila, The National Museum of Finland +358 (0)295 336 131,
  • Director of Marketing and Communications Päivi Kukkamäki, tel. +358 (0)295 336 181,
  • Intendant, General Ethnographic Collections, Heli Lahdentausta, tel. +358 (0)295 336 434,
  • Chief Intendant, Collections and Research, Sanna Teittinen, tel. +358 (0)295 336 394,

The Ministry of Education and Culture

  • Counsellor for Cultural Affairs Päivi Salonen, tel. +358 (0)295 330 281,