The bones of 22 Inuit lay for 83 years in storage at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, a prestigious institution that held the proceeds of a long-buried crime on the coast of Labrador.
For all those decades, the Inuit had no idea an ambitious archaeologist from the south had robbed their graves. But on the archeological grapevine and in the researcher's writings, the heist was not forgotten. Now, those Inuit bones are going home.
The mystery began to unravel in 2008, when a researcher working for the Smithsonian Institution sent a note to Labrador's Torngâsok Cultural Centre with some gossip he had heard around the campfire: The Field Museum may have the remains of some of your people.
A small team from Labrador launched a two-year quest that will end soon with the return of the bones.
"The story is quite unbelievable. In a way, it could turn into a happy story, even though what was done was immoral, disrespectful and disgraceful. Now we want to do what is right," said Johannes Lampe, Minister of Culture in the Nunatsiavut Inuit government of northern Labrador.
The remains, including a handful of complete skeletons, came from the Inuit community of Zoar, which was founded in the mid-1800s by missionaries of the Moravian church, a German Protestant denomination. By 1894 the community had been abandoned, with little more than a graveyard to mark its existence.
"It's really a beautiful area, but it wasn't the perfect spot for settlement," said Jamie Brake, an archeologist with Labrador's Torngâsok Cultural Centre, based in nearby Nain. "There wasn't much fresh water, it wasn't a good spot for hunting, the caribou rarely passed by. It was also a very bad area for flies."
In 1927, William Duncan Strong, a young curator from the Field Museum, arrived on the coast of Labrador. Mr. Brake and Helen Robbins, the repatriation director at the Field, reviewed Dr. Strong's personal journal and expedition reports to reconstruct what happened next.
Dr. Strong quickly got into trouble with the Inuit when he went to Zoar and dug up marked graves. After hearing complaints, the local magistrate, a man named Simms who ruled from a ship offshore, ordered Dr. Strong to return the graves to their original state.
Dr. Strong filled the graves, which were marked and documented by the Moravian missionaries. He then skulked back to Chicago with the bones of 22 Inuit.
The Inuit, who assumed the remains had been placed back in the graves, forgot about their American visitor. The administrators of the Field Museum, for their part, believed the bones had been obtained in good faith - until recently, at least.
Dr. Strong, who died in 1962, went on to a long career of considerable repute. Grave-robbing was common in the 19th century, but by Dr. Strong's time the removal of remains without permission was considered unethical. His actions mystify those who followed him.
Ms. Robbins described Dr. Strong's writings as ambiguous: While he felt taking the remains was distasteful, he didn't seem to feel remorse.
"He was a very junior curator, just out of graduate school, it was his first big job. He was told the museum wanted physical anthropological specimens, he felt he needed to do that," Ms. Robbins said. "I think he was a complicated man. I hate to throw stones at him. He was young and new to his profession."
While U.S. law requires the return of native remains in the United States, institutions like the Field Museum and the Smithsonian have led the way, voluntarily returning hundreds of sets of remains to Canada, mainly on the West Coast.
Mr. Brake and others from the cultural centre worked for months to confirm the identities of the Labrador remains, and to track down living descendants. The Old German documentation left by the Moravian missionaries and tangled family trees have made the work extremely difficult.
"We looked closely at two individuals and ended up with 150 pages with names and dates relating to potential descendants. We quickly hit our limit on how much time and money we could dedicate," Mr. Brake said.
The Field Museum has agreed to pay for repatriating the remains, but many details remain to be worked out with Nunatsiavut.
One detail has been decided. Mr. Brake said the remains will be buried in Zoar, where they were unearthed 83 years ago.