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Rick Steelhammer: The back story on the Finnish president's White House visit rooted in American West

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto received praise and achieved meme status last week for managing to maintain a calm, somewhat bemused demeanor while seated next to President Donald Trump during an Oval Office press conference that quickly went off the rails.

Niinisto, largely ignored during the media event, could be seen pointedly staring at fixed objects on a wall on the opposite side of the room as his American counterpart’s responses to questions went from conversational tones to shouts and insults. At times, Niinisto would flash what to me looked like a “what am I doing here?” expression while suppressing the beginning of a wry smile.

After all, Niinisto is president of a country determined by a branch of the United Nations to be the Happiest Country in the World for the second consecutive year. He was seated next to the president of a nation that placed 19th in the same survey — down five numbers since 2017.

Although the only soundbite from Niinisto to get much air time was his observation that America is a “great democracy,” and advising Trump to “keep it going on.”

The Finnish leader was in Washington to talk with Trump and members of his cabinet about trade, world security, the European Union and other timely topics, which he did. But he was also was in town to announce an agreement through which Finland will do what it can to right a past wrong that took place in the American Southwest in 1891.

That was when Finnish-Swedish natural scientist Gustaf Nordenskiold and a crew of hired hands spent a summer excavating ruins of mainly Hopi cliff-dwelling sites in what is now Mesa Verde National Park.

By painstakingly recording and photographing features and artifacts as they were unearthed by trowels, rather than shovels, and publishing a comprehensive report on the dig, the Scandinavian scientist’s work there helped advance the field of archeology. But Nordenskiold thought it was his right to load train cars filled with up to 20 mummified bodies and assorted funerary objects, and send them east to an Atlantic port for an ocean voyage to Finland.

Nordenskiold was arrested and briefly held in custody in Durango, Colorado, not so much for removing and assuming ownership of bodies and objects belonging to native people as for being a foreigner doing those things, according to news accounts of the time.

After proving there was no law prohibiting him from shipping his cargo home, Nordenskiold went on his way, donating his collection to the National Museum in Helsinki, where they remain today.

The incident led to protecting Mesa Verde by designating it a national park in 1906, and guarding against the looting of artifacts and remains on federal lands through passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906.

In a case of possible spiritual overreach, Nordenskiold did not live long enough to learn of the legislation. He died in 1905 at age 26.

Meanwhile, Niinisto and his staff are working with Hopi and other tribal officials to arrange for the transport and reburial of the remains removed from Mesa Verde and taken to Finland.

Through provisions of the Antiquities Act that grant presidents the ability to change the designations and sizes of national monuments, Trump was able to remove 2 million acres from two national monuments in Utah in 2017.

Then, last year, a few days before balloting began in a tightly contested Kentucky Congressional race between Democrat Amy McGrath and Republican Andy Barr, the president made a campaign appearance with Barr. He also invoked the 1906 law to designate the Camp Nelson Civil War site, near Lexington, a national monument.

Barr won the race.

So, as history makes a circle, thanks for nothing, Gustaf, wherever you are.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

Funerals for Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Adkins, Dorsel - 11 a.m., Casto Funeral Home, Evans.

Anderson, William - 1 p.m., Foglesong-Casto Funeral Home, Mason.

Kalinoski, Peggy - 3 p.m., Goshen Baptist Church Cemetery, Kenna.

Pyles, Jack - 1 p.m., Wilcoxen Funeral Home, Point Pleasant.