B. Sjoholm: From Lapland to Sápmi

From Lapland to Sápmi. Collecting and Returning Sámi Craft and Culture

Sjoholm, Barbara
Anzahl Seiten
345 S., 74 Fotografien, 20 Farbtafeln, 1 Karte
$ 34.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Solveig Marie Wang, Nordic History, University of Greifswald

Barbara Sjoholm’s public history contribution “From Lapland to Sápmi: Collecting and Returning Sámi Craft and Culture” delves into the collecting of Sámi material objects throughout the past 400 years. A writer and translator by profession, Sjoholm’s creative approach to collected Sámi objects and their diverse personal connections, both within and without Sápmi, provides a complex and entangled image of how these items were transported away from, and sometimes returned to, the Sámi. Consisting of three parts, “Northern Curiosities”, “Collecting”, and “Two Directions”, the book’s main purpose is to relate the movements of Sámi objects through “shifting custodianships” (that is, ownership). (p. xvi)

The first part, “Northern Curiosities”, emphasises the early mythologisation of the Sámi across four chapters. Sjoholm’s first part revolves around the German-Swedish scholar Johannes Schefferus’ (1621–1679) “encyclopaedia of the visible Sámi world” (p. 8) Lapponia from 1673, before focusing on so-called cabinets of curiosities, where we follow objects from Sápmi “as the gand arrow flies” (p. 21): exploring, for instance, how the Sámi drum “became a potent symbol of conflict” (p. 16) and introducing us to the Freavnantjahke gievrie from Norway, which is referred to more extensively in its repatriation context later in the book.1 In the chapter “Mr Bullock’s Exhibition of Laplanders”, Sjoholm tactfully balances the absurdity of exhibitions of living Sámi peoples with the possible agency of the individuals on display. This first part sets the scene for later chapters by introducing the temporal and “scientific” foundations for harmful stereotypes about the Sámi, but also the process in which “Lapland had become Sápmi” (p. 69) by the end of the twentieth century.

The second part, “Collecting”, is introduced by a chapter following the Sámi translator, activist, and artist Lars Jakobsen Hætta’s (1834–1896) relationship with the scholar Jens Andreas Friis (1821–1896) during the former’s imprisonment at Akershus Festning in Oslo following his participation in the Sámi uprising in Kautokeino in 1852. Also in the subsequent chapters, the author navigates the often-heavy themes inherent in the collecting of Sámi artefacts by adding prominence to interpersonal relationships. Indeed, one of the many strengths of the book are the biographical anecdotes offered by Sjoholm throughout, often leading to vibrant descriptions. On the missionary Thomas von Westen (1682–1727) she writes that “his was a sensual but suspicious face: full lips, lifted eyebrows, accusing eyes” (p. 30), and the Finno-Ugric linguist Karl Bernhard Wiklund (1868–1934) is humorously stated to be “the ancient bearded wizard of Lappology” (p. 133). In the sensitively written chapter “Wax Cylinders, Sámi Voices” on the intangible heritage of joik we learn that “at the end of the joik, there’s a laugh, Maria’s quick laugh, a breath of delight.” (p. 211)

In the chapter “Autumn Migration in Lule Lappmark”, Sjoholm again emphasises personal relationships through biographical approaches. Here, the author balances Lotten von Düben’s (1828–1915) skills and agency as a female photographer with the very sinister phrenological purposes of photography in Lule Lappmark in the mid-nineteenth century. The focus on Lotten von Düben as a companion to her husband, Baron Gustaf von Düben (1822–1892), and as a skilled artist is refreshing, contributing nevertheless to the loss of agency of the Sámi individuals photographed by her, like Inga Kajsa Granström and Eva Brita Mulka. While the intentions of this type of photography to document the skull shape of the Sámi is documented as part of the Social Darwinist tendencies of society at the time, the lack of more information about this type of harmful research unconsciously adds room for misunderstanding in the text. This unconsciousness is perhaps most visible in the photographs of Granström and Mulka, as well as the quote that “the real Sámi people were not as conventionally attractive, perhaps, as Lotten and Gustaf von Düben might have liked […].” (p. 108) Here, adding a note that these types of photographs were arranged in a subverted fashion to accentuate certain features, meaning that set individuals were chosen over others on the basis of their appearances, clothing, and hygiene at the time of the photograph, would have helped nuance the narrative.2

Continuing from her biography3 of the Danish artist, translator, and ethnographer Emilie Demant Hatt (1873–1958), the author retraces the story of Demant Hatt and the Sámi writer Johan Turi’s (1854–1936) relationship, following the blue box he gifted her (among many courting gifts). Here, Sjoholm’s ability to emphasise both Demant Hatt’s ambitions in Sápmi and Turi’s infatuation with her is sympathetically formulated. It would have been an easy oversight to have Turi’s agency and important contribution as a writer in his own right be lost in this form of historiography through storytelling, but this is not the case. Nevertheless, the fact that Demant Hatt did not return any of Turi’s handmade courting gifts once she married another man (with one exception), instead donating several objects to Nordiska Museet in Stockholm, offers a solid foundation for the complex question of repatriation, which is the main focus of the book’s third part.

Already having set the scene in previous chapters by emphasising Sami identities and belonging, the harmful colonial strategies like the Norwegianisation process and the Swedish Nomad School system, but also the increasing Sámi rights activism throughout the twentieth century, the last three chapters consist of an analysis on recentring, returning, and recollecting. Museum politics take centre stage as Sjoholm navigates the changing perceptions of the Sámi and the homecoming of Sámi objects to Sápmi starting in the 1980s. Referring to several ongoing cases, the author asks several questions about the right to cultural heritage in an increasingly globalised world, considering both the locations and responsibilities of museum collections. The author tackles the complicated topic of repatriation with great ease by comparing both its performative and ambiguous sides with its ability to “change the paradigm of Indigenous ownership.” (p. 267) Sjoholm makes a particularly poignant point when she addresses that the most substantial collection of Sámi items outside of Sápmi is held in the Museum Europäischer Kulturen in Berlin, but with only one hat on public display.

An alternative history to of the Nordic countries as the most progressive on earth, Sjoholm’s monograph instead makes clear the complicity of this region in social and cultural injustices connected with colonialism and racism. Despite the serious and complicated topics discussed, the author manages to present a well-written work for readers both familiar and unfamiliar with the Sámi. The book covers a vast array of topics, following various peoples and a diverse range of objects, sometimes perhaps allowing for misunderstandings due to the broad nature of the material studied. “From Lapland to Sápmi” is nevertheless a thoughtful book that addresses difficult questions about the symbolic and physical power of both intangible and tangible Sámi cultural heritage that was collected, and importantly, recollected, throughout the past 400 years.

1 See p. 267. The formal repatriation process from Meininger Museum in Germany, where the drum had been located since 1837, was initiated following publication in summer 2023.
2 Cf. Maja Hagerman / Käraste Herman, Rasbiologen Herman Lundborgs gåta, Stockholm 2015. See also Thomas Mayer’s review of the German translation: Maja Hagerman, Herman Lundborg. Rätsel eines Rassenbiologen, Berlin 2020, in: H-Soz-Kult, 26.08.2022, https://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-98321 (23.10.2023).
3 Barbara Sjoholm, Black Fox. A Life of Emilie Demant Hatt, Artist and Ethnographer, Madison, WI 2017.