Sami human remains must be returned
The question of Sami human remains in Swedish national collections is partly a concrete reminder of a racist period that most people are appalled by, partly proof of the discrimination the Sami people suffered, even in the name of science. For an indigenous people, being able to give their ancestors a proper reburial is of utmost importance.
Demands of repatriation nothing new
The return or repatriation of items and remains are demands that have been raised by indigenous peoples worldwide since the 1970’s in pace with an increased political awareness and demands for self-determination. Repatriation is about the right to the past and to one’s ancestors. But it is also about reconciliation. Nations should acknowledge their responsibility in the injustices and return that which has been stolen.
A government assignment from 2005 directed to national museums and institutions has given a better picture of the number of human Sami skeletal remains held by the national collections. The compilation made by the Swedish Sami Parliament of Sami human remains shows that the reporting is incomplete. A number of institutions, such as national historical museums, have not reported the Sami skeletal material in Sweden in their compilations, only Sami skeletal material from Russia and Norway. According to a report from the Ájtte Mountain and Sami Museum from 2005, there are Sami remains also at the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm, as well as Norrbotten’s Museum in Luleå, Skellefteå’s Museum and Västerbotten’s Museum in Umeå.
The Swedish Sami Parliament wants to know more
In 2007, The Sami Parliament plenary session decided to request a complete identification of all Sami skeletal material held in all national collections and repatriation of the human remains to where they belong. The Sami Parliament also wants to know how museums and institutions acquired the material – i.e. if by way of opening burial grounds or other manner. But they haven’t come any further.
The Swedish Church or not?
The Swedish Church has suggested that Sami body parts that have been stored in museums and other state institutions shall be buried in accordance with Church procedures, and that remains that cannot be traced to individuals should be buried in a common grave in the form of a monument. The Parliament believes that the question of reburials carried out by the Swedish Church as well as the common burial with a monument can be dealt with later on, as well as from case to case. The remains are to be shown the respect they deserve based on the time in which they lived, for there are even remains stemming from before Christianity was introduced.
Respect for the ancestors
The Sami people’s old religion was a nature religion. In general, it was based on the belief of a spirited nature and that people lived in a world that was also inhabited by other supernatural beings. For example, ancestors continued to live in another dimension and were respected by their descendants. This old Sami religion is not practiced today. The Sami were considered Christian by the end of the 1700’s, meaning that they had all been baptized. But the Sami still feel a great respect for their ancestors. The significance of Sami human remains once again resting in their graves and not being stored on a shelf at a Swedish institution cannot be underestimated. A funeral is an important event in the Sami community where the entire family comes together and honours the dead with their presence. The burial ceremony and memorial service take several hours and is a respectable conclusion. It is not something to be rushed or to pass unnoticed. This is why the question of repatriation and reburial is of such great importance.
A return or repatriation is a matter that cannot be solved in a hurry. But how long is it going to take before we see the first Sami remains returned from Swedish State collections. Who ”owns” the remains? And if a common monument is to be erected, where will it be located? There are many questions that remain to be solved, but nothing happens if no one works with them.
Two repatriations in Sápmi
The first repatriations on Sami ground occurred in 1997 in Norway. They were the skulls of Mons Sombys and Aslak Haettas that were returned from the anatomical institute in Oslo and were buried at the Talvik Church outside Alta in Norway. The other repatriation was in Sweden in 2002. It was the so-called Soejvengeelle (meaning ”shadow man” in the South Sami language) who was reburied in his original grave at Atoklimpen in Tänaby. Researcher Ernst Manker from the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm carried out an archaeological survey in the 1950’s, taking with him parts of the skeleton for further investigation with the promise of returning them. Thanks to a written note in the archives of the Nordiska Museum, and an unyielding Sami association, Soejvengeelle could be reburied in his original grave in October 2002.