My research focuses on how the Sami were represented in text and images in four natural scientists’ travel- and scientific journals and letter correspondence during the nineteenth century. The scientists are Goran Wahlenberg (1780-1851), Lars Levi Laestadius (1800-1861), Sven Loven (1809-1895) and Axel Hamberg (1863-1933). They were all based in Sweden, but did field studies and field research trips in the north of Finland, the north of Norway, the north of Sweden and Spitsbergen. The purpose with this project is to reveal representations in the four natural scientists’ works, in a century of great dynamics.
As Europe and the Nordic countries industrialised during the nineteenth century, the traditional farming community changed and became more mechanized, creating a new working class that came from the peasantry, and the so called “North” was looked at with great interest. In Sweden, Norway and Finland, scientific interest in the northern regions ran parallel to the interest in forestry and water power.
The four natural scientists made field trips and field studies in areas were the Sami lived. Their natural scientific research had an important role: it gave birth to Sami ethnography, as well as a development of Sami anthropology. The evolution of these two scientific disciplines shared crucial concepts with the growth of the modern, political Norden, such as “one people” with emphasis on “individuality” and “distinctive character”.
Bottom of Mountain Lake in Northern Sweden. Photo: Karin Granqvist
Both within anthropology and ethnography, the focus was on people’s and cultures’ attributes such as tools, clothes, food as well as social and cultural studies which resulted in results different groups of people being distinguished from one another. This was also the case for the natural scientific field studies of Sami in Norden, where ideas about “one people”, “individuality” and “distinctive character” were kept alive. In those natural scientific studies the Sami were separated from the Swedes, the Norwegians and Finns. The three countries were also separated from each other, with the mapping of which group within the Sami community and culture belonged to what nation. I would like to call this process a construction of a “northern science”, and it had an important role in forming narratives about the 19th-century contemporary ideas of the Sami as well as modern Sweden; what it was and how it looked like. And the focus was on what type of characteristic that separated the Sami from Swedes, as well as from Norway and Norwegians, and Finland and Finns.
When it boiled down to science, we find ideas about biology; science was bound to natural laws that could not be broken. This can particularly be found in the natural scientific ideas about the Sami. The natural scientists used words such as “race” and “tribe” to exemplify such laws when describing the Sami, Sami life and culture. References to sagas and fictive histories in order to place Sami in a specific group of people, contemporary with the Æsir, were also used. Another idea was that the Sami had since what was called ‘beginning of (all) time’ been separated from every other group of people, and had since then only been affected by their interaction with nature. These ideas were the result of ideas of biology and natural laws, and they were also coloured by romantic ideas that influenced natural science during the second half of the 19th century. This trend was emphasised by the anthropological and ethnographical field studies of the Sami that focused on material, social and cultural life that was different from those of ‘others’. The life of ‘the others’ were described in romantic words and romantic ideas of an ideal life in movable tents, and a nomadic lifestyle, close to nature. Ideas that the Sami were a people with a very specific and distinguished character and heritage got even stronger with the establishment of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. So there existed very complex and multi-faceted ideas about the Sami during the whole of the 19th century, which in the end resulted in the Sami being addressed as a group with very distinctive characteristics that was a result of their cultural heritage as well as their life in close interaction with nature.
Mountain lake in northern Sweden. Many Sami lived off fishing, as an income in addition to reindeer herding or as their only income. Photo: Karin Granqvist
But how could the natural scientists in the 19th century manage to detect, describe, map and categorise a people that already had been ‘discovered’ and describe every since the 9th century? It is obvious that the natural scientists’ research and studies of the Sami – nowadays available in their travelling and scientific journals, their letters and articles – had several colonial traits. Their perspective on the northern regions was the same as that which was used when Africa was colonised, incorporating ideal of emptiness. The idea that the geographical areas which the natural scientists investigated and mapped in the north were “empty” and “void” were colonial ones, used in a Scandinavian and Nordic context. This meant that the cultural landscape of the Sami could be handled as empty as well.
In the case of the northern tracts of Sweden, Norway and Finland, this meant that they were knowledgably apprehended as a terra nullius. The view of (a) land as “desolate” and “empty” also makes the people that inhabit it into “nothing”. This meant that the four natural scientists could ‘fill’ their representations of Sami with what suited their purposes or interests. As already mentioned that ‘filling’ was a question of contemporary, romantic influences on the natural sciences, their own subjective perceptions, as well as references and mimetic references to written works by the Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus, the Danish missionary Knut Leem, Finnish dictionaries, Icelandic sagas and fairy tales in addition to their own field studies. Nevertheless, their work does give us an important window into how the Sami lived, dressed, travelled and managed their everyday life.
Arctic Cotton. A well-known plant in northern regions in Sweden, Finland, Norway, as well as in areas such as Baffin Island. Photo: Karin Granqvist