IQALUIT, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES, JULY 5 -- A precious cargo of century-old human bones will make its way in a few weeks from the bowels of the American Museum of Natural History in New York to a graveyard on the icy western coast of Greenland. A simple brass plaque will read: "They have come home."

"They" are the mortal remains of four Eskimos, now called Inuit, who were lured from their native home by the polar explorer Robert Peary on an expedition he made to the northern Arctic in 1897. A single live Eskimo had been requisitioned for study by anthropologists back home, but the indefatigable Peary persuaded six Eskimos to leave their rude coastal settlement for "nice warm homes in the sunshine land," according to the testimony of one of them, Minik, a child of 6 at the time.

Theirs was an unsunny fate. They were quartered in the museum's basement and suffered the regular indignity of being displayed to the public. Four of them, including Minik's father, Qisuk, were dead within months. After dissection, defleshing and further scientific scrutiny, their skeletal remains were put away in numbered boxes at the museum, where they remain today. A fifth Eskimo returned to Greenland. The sixth, Minik, also went back to Greenland as an adolescent, but found his native surroundings as alien as New York had been 12 years earlier. He sailed back to the United States, and died at the age of 27 in New Hampshire, where he is buried.

Kenn Harper, an entrepreneur and amateur historian in this Baffin Island town, has made a cause of Minik, Qisuk and the others, notably in a privately published book, "Give Me My Father's Body." He has sought proper burial arrangements for them in pleas to the American Museum of Natural History -- pleas that have now borne fruit in the plans of Qaanaaq, Greenland, to provide a final resting place in native soil for the four Eskimos.

"There will be a simple burial of the bones on the first of August," said Torben Diklev, curator of the Thule Museum in Qaanaaq, in a telephone interview. "It will not be a Christian burial because they were pagans. They will be placed in the ground with a pile of rocks on top of them and a brass plaque."

Diklev said the American Museum of Natural History is shipping the remains on July 28 by way of the U.S. Air Force installation near Thule, Greenland. He said he understood the museum would be represented at the burial by Edmund Carpenter, an anthropologist from New York. Neither Carpenter nor the museum's director, William J. Moynihan, could be reached for comment over the holiday weekend.

But it appears that the long saga of the Eskimos is drawing to a close 96 years after it began -- largely owing to Harper's book and publication of articles about his quest in The Washington Post and the Globe and Mail of Toronto last year. It was the ensuing publicity, Harper said, that catalyzed the little museum in Qaanaaq and the big one in New York to pay proper respects to the Eskimos.

Attitudes and atmosphere were quite different when Peary sailed into the Brooklyn Navy Yard on his return from the Arctic. There, some 30,000 people boarded the Hope to view the exotic spectacle of live Eskimos -- human specimens on pedestals, and breathing ones at that. They continued to attract attention, popular and scholarly, when they were removed to the museum.

Such treatment may seem plainly cruel and inhumane by today's lights, but was common enough scientific practice in Peary's time. Hundreds of other aboriginals' skeletons are thought to repose in European and American museums, and native groups in Canada and elsewhere are seeking their repatriation in this International Year of Indigenous Peoples.

A darker spectacle followed the anthropological circus.

In the years after Qisuk died, his little son Minik, the only remaining member of Peary's northern catch, was adopted by the museum's building superintendent, William Wallace. Sent to live on Wallace's farm in Cobleskill, N.Y., and raised in the bosom of his family, Minik learned English and grew up riding horseback and playing baseball.

But on a return visit to the museum one day, according to what he later told the New York World, Minik was stunned to come upon a display case housing the skeletal remains of his father -- the father whose formal burial he thought he had witnessed years before. "I felt as though I must die then and there. I threw myself at the bottom of the glass case and prayed and wept. I went straight to the director and implored him to let me bury my father. He would not. I swore that I would never rest until I had given my father burial," he reportedly said.

Harper believes the circumstances of Minik's macabre discovery were a good deal less sensational than the dramatic tale spun in the World, but he said the basic revelation and Minik's subsequent deep distress have never been controverted.

Wallace, according to Harper's research, later admitted to his young Eskimo ward that he had had a hand in the elaborate faked burial of Qisuk, in which a man-size log had been draped to resemble a corpse. The renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, who had backed Peary's fabled Eskimo heist until it turned ugly, later admitted the bogus ceremony was "to appease the boy."

The story of Minik's ordeal lay dormant for decades, largely unknown to his descendants, until Harper's findings were publicized last year. The Post's account of the case, by former Canada correspondent William Claiborne, flushed out Wallace's great-granddaughter, Wendy J. Wallace, who lives in Saudi Arabia. At Harper's prompting, she sought to have Qisuk's remains buried next to his son's in the Indian Stream Cemetery near Pittsburg, N.H.

Wallace and Harper are disappointed that the Qaanaaq museum apparently has decided instead to bury Qisuk in Greenland with the remains of the three others, but seem satisfied that justice has been done. "What happened to these people is just appalling," said Wallace. "The main thing is that they are getting Qisuk out of the museum."

Harper agreed: "It would have been a little more touching if he'd been buried next to Minik, but going back to where he came from is the next best thing."