From repatriation to rematriation – Sámi heritage and the change of paradigm

“Accessibility to collections heals our relationship with museums. There is a conflict in this relationship, and it has to do with colonialist attitudes, that we could somehow cleanse, that hey, this is also our place and for us. That helps the healing process, that there is not always us and them.” Sámi artist Outi Pieski.
Sámi colourful crafts

This tittle carries the name of my PhD-work that I am now preparing. In my work I study the repatriation of Sámi belongings from many viewpoints: Why is repatriation a difficult subject for the majority museums, why is it important to the Sámi people and what is the potential of these belongings when they return home.

Since the 17th century scholars, priests and explorers have practiced collecting in the Sámi area under the guidance of their curiosity. As a result, over 50 000 Sámi belongings are still in the hands of non-Sámi institutions all over Europe and the Nordic countries. Due to this scientific colonialism many Sámi museums need the belongings to exhibit or study them in their own museums and society.

In general repatriation is affiliated to ancestral remains but it has also other meanings. In brief, repatriation means returning cultural heritage and knowledge, collected by museums or other institutions, to the source communities or societies. Repatriation practices include committing source communities to research or transferring the control of heritage to their origins. In some cases, the museums of the majority population can continue preserving and exhibiting artefacts, following the norms of the source community, and even providing the source society with information about their heritage can be seen as repatriation.

Generally, repatriation is seen as symbolic and as a matter of governance and therefore politics. Although that is one important part of repatriation, there are many others. Belongings can be a source inspiration for modern duodji/craft, but they also carry the knowledge of ancestors and as such are a database for those who can read the duodji-language.

When these collections return home, they receive a new meaning.

Repatriation has been discussed in the Sámi society since the 1970´s but during the last 20 years this discussion has intensified. This discussion has mostly been running in Sámi circles, but during the last six years, it has started to become a subject for discussion in Europe and Nordic countries, not only because of new criticized ethnographic museum Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

During the last years a lot has happened in this front also in the Nordic countries. After many years of conversations in 2019 Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (UiO) and The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History signed a contract whereby half of their collections will be repatriated to Norwegian Sámi museums. In 2017 quite suddenly National museum of Finland and Sámi museum Siida signed a contract that the National museum of Finland will repatriate its whole Sámi collection to Sámi museum Siida. The collection has returned to Sápmi and as a part of this process a co-operation exhibition Máhccan – Homecoming by these museums has been opened in the National museum of Finland.

When these collections return home, they receive a new meaning. Obviously, there is a lot of archival material that will have to be studied to combine these objects with all the provenance they have, but in addition they will have a new role. The Sámi museum is about to have a stronger role in bringing the Sámi societies together with the duodji, craft made by their ancestors. For this role I wish to bring a new concept to museum field, it is rematriation, a process where research, knowledge, and history are brought together, shared and intertwined with Sámi communal crafting, traditional knowledge and silent information.

This is a process that combines narratives, memories, meanings, and emotions that are intertwined with these objects today. In this process Sámi museum will facilitate the material mand space for the Sámi societies to work collectively in a healing and supportive atmosphere.

The blog post is part of a series of blogs relating to multidisciplinary Arctic research at the University of Oulu. The next writer is Professor Antti Niemi, Structures and Construction Technology Research Unit.

Eeva-Kristiina Harlin is an archaeologist who is finalizing her dissertation at the Giellagas Institute and is currently working on a permanent exhibition at the Sámi Museum Siida.