How the Sami were affected by research in “racial biology”

The Sami flag that was first hoisted in 1986. Photo: Getty Images

Work at the Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology involved categorising ethnic groups into distinct races and evaluating them in relation to one another. This endeavour was based on comparisons among individuals thought to be representative of their respective races. The Sami population, in their capacity as Sweden’s only indigenous people, aroused especially keen interest.

“I’d say there was a huge emphasis on the Sami, who were their main object of study. But there were other groups as well, such as Roma, Travellers, Jews and Finns, who were examined. It was a matter of creating images of what were Swedish ideals, and defining Swedishness,” says May-Britt Öhman, researcher at the Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism (CEMFOR).

The Institute’s working methods included describing and documenting individuals in detail by, for example, measuring their crania and photographing them with and without clothes.

“Obviously, just being subjected to being photographed naked was traumatising. There were children and elderly people, and many were deeply religious. Having to strip naked in front of others is a traumatic experience,” says Carl-Gösta Ojala, an archaeologist engaged in research on the history of the Sami.

The view that people could be categorised into races was a contemporary one, not in itself unique to the Institute of Racial Biology. The Sami were considered exotic and lacking the capacity to develop, and were therefore classified as inferior.

“The whole idea of inferior populations leaves deep marks in people, making them feel they’re worth less and have had their culture marginalised,” Ojala says.

Lost the right to their religion

Swedish State restrictions on Sami culture were nothing new. In the 17th century, the Sami lost the right to their own religion; as good Christians, on the other hand, they were able to obtain high positions in society. In the late 19th century, imperialist and nationalist ideas began to gain a stronger foothold in Europe, including Sweden. One repercussion was a growing interest in “racial biology”. Industrialisation also generated a need to utilise the rich natural resources of Norrland.

“As the Swedes embarked on even more vigorous exploitation of forest resources and ore deposits, and plans for hydropower were conceived, perceptions of the Sami changed,” says May-Britt Öhman, whose research field is environmental and technological history and how economic exploitation affects indigenous peoples.

During this period the first Reindeer Grazing Act (1886), stipulating that only Sami who belong to a sameby (both an economic association and a defined geographical area) are entitled to own reindeer, was passed.

“So all other Sami lost the right to have reindeer. It was also a question of Sami rights to reindeer grazing areas, hunting and fishing. It was a matter of using state control to divide people into groups. Those who lived in the mountains and engaged in reindeer herding were considered ‘genuine’ Sami. From then on, the education their children received – at special residential ‘nomad schools’ started for them – was different from that provided for other children. Reindeer-herding Sami were no longer allowed to build houses; instead, they became obliged to live in traditional huts. Sami who didn’t belong to a sameby, on the other hand, were subjected to an assimilation process to become Swedes, thus ending up as outsiders. The same applied to the population of Torne Valley on the Finnish border. They weren’t allowed to speak their language at school, and many lost their language because of the school policy,” Ojala says.

Anatomical research

These developments were paralleled by growing interest in anatomical research. Skulls and to some extent whole skeletons, often dug up from Sami cemeteries, were collected. At Uppsala University, it was mainly the Department of Anatomy that obtained these remains, primarily skulls, which were used for medical studies of the human body.

“They were used in teaching and research. It was part of the research prompted by interest in race, where they did measurements and comparisons so as to investigate supposed similarities and differences among ethnic groups. It was nationalist research, about understanding the origins of the Swedish people and how they were related to other peoples,” Ojala says.

In 2007, the Sami Parliament demanded the return and reburial of all Sami remains, which was supported by international law. However, Uppsala University still has collections containing Sami human remains from the old anatomical collections. Ojala points out that the key issues are who should have the right to dispose over these remains in the old collections, and that the Sami should be entitled to their own cultural heritage.

Surprising results

As for how this should be done, there are no clear regulations. Before the reburial, for example, can researchers examine the parts of skeletons that might enhance knowledge of the Sami history? Some of the remains from the University’s collections are now stored at Ájtte, the Swedish Mountain and Sami Museum in Jokkmokk, just north of the Arctic Circle. These include a number of skeletons that were exhumed at Rounala Cemetery, north of Karesuando (Sweden’s northernmost locality), in 1915. When present-day researchers were allowed to examine these, the results were surprising.

“They were older than people thought. When they were dug up, they were assumed to be from the late 16th century at the earliest, but the dating shows that they go back to the Middle Ages, and there are therefore presumably also influences from Norway. This is new knowledge that, if we hadn’t done the exhumation, we wouldn’t have obtained otherwise,” Ojala says.

Ájtte recently requested the Government’s approval for the remains to be returned for reburial.

Åsa Malmberg

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