American Airlines Flies Home Native American Remains

***Update on 09/21/2020 @ 23:34 UTC – Inserted additional details and images from American Airlines***

American Airlines took part in an extraordinary repatriation mission. While most of us think of repatriation as flights bringing back living citizens that were ubiquitous at the start of the current crisis, American Airlines took part in a different kind of repatriation. Working with various agencies, the airline transported the remains and other funerary artifacts of Native American inhabitants to Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park.

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American Airlines flew a very important repatriation of remains and funerary artifacts. Photo: Getty Images

American Airlines flies back remains

The US Embassy in Finland, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Interior, and a coalition of tribes helped repatriate these remains. While repatriations have become commonplace in the current world of closed borders and a global health crisis, this repatriation was vastly different.

The airline was part of the mission that repatriated remains of Native Americans and funerary objects. The airline’s Honor Team members worked across departments, from Flight and Dispatch to Cargo and Customer Operations departments.

American Airlines has a specialized team that works to handle remains with care during repatriation. Photo: American Airlines

Speaking on the repatriation, American’s Chief Operating Officer, David Seymour, stated the following:

“It was an honor and privilege for American team members to participate in and support the repatriation of these remains is an honor. It takes a lot of coordination from our teams and partners to ensure special transports like these happen safely and respectfully. I’m incredibly proud of our team members who helped make this journey home such a success. And a special thanks to the Allied Pilots Association leadership for the critical role it played.”

The remains were reinterred last week on September 13th in the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Tribal leaders were in attendance.

The remains and artifacts flew with American Airlines from London-Heathrow (LHR) to Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW). Then, AA flew the precious cargo to Durango (DRO) in Colorado.

Ambassador Pence, a member of American’s Honor Team, and other dignitaries pay their respects to the remains and artifacts. Photo: American Airlines

The story of the remains

In the 1890s, Native American remains and funerary objects were removed from their graves in Colorado. They ended up at the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki. In the past, Native American remains and funerary artifacts have been removed from their locations and taken to various museums for display. However, in the last few decades, there has been a program in place to reinter and repatriate remains and funerary artifacts to their rightful place or places, especially since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act became law in 1990.

Ambassador Robert Pence
The US Ambassador to Finland, Robert Pence, pays his respects as American Airlines flew back these remains for their proper and rightful reinterment. Photo: American Airlines

It took years to plan their return and reinterment in Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. First and foremost, plans have to be in place for the safe and ritualistic reinterment of the remains in Colorado, with the support of tribal leaders. Then, various governmental agencies in the United States and Finland need to come together and devise a plan for the safe transport of these items back, with delegates from the US Embassy in Finland and representatives from the Finnish government.

Thereafter, working with American Airlines, the carrier has to ensure that, working with its Honor Team, it handles the remains and artifacts with respect and with care.

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It took a few years to coordinate with all teams to fly these remains back home. Photo: Getty Images

Why this repatriation matters

Native Americans have had a long history in the United States. There are many tribes in the United States, with different death rituals, artifacts, and languages. However, since the arrival of Europeans on the continent, the lives of Native Americans changed forever.

While this one reinterment does not represent the complete absolution of the atrocities committed against Native Americans in the past, it does represent a positive step forward in recognizing the contribution of Native Americans and respecting their cultures, practices, and remembering those who have passed.

Airlines play an important role in repatriating remains. Whether it be those of fallen service members to Native American artifacts, airlines have to handle all remains with care and consideration. American Airlines is no novice in handling these kinds of flights, but every time it happens, anyone at the airline can assure you that it is a genuinely emotional experience. Furthermore, for the descendants and Native Ameican tribal leaders, this was one very important mission.

What do you think about American Airlines repatriating the remains and funerary artifacts of Native Americans for reinterment in Colorado? Let us know in the comments!