Karin Granqvist leads IPY Project 30, Representations of Sami in Nineteenth Century Polar Literature: The Arctic 'Other'
My research is about how Sámi were represented in text and images in four natural scientists’ combined travel and scientific journals and letter correspondence during the nineteenth century. The scientists are Göran Wahlenberg (1780-1851), Lars Levi Læstadius (1800-1861), Sven Lovén (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.
I have, at this stage in my work, compared representations of Sámi made by Wahlenberg and Lovén with representations of Inuit made by Robert E. Peary (1856-1920). Peary made several Greenland expeditions (1891-1892, 1893-1895, 1902-1905) and a North Pole expedition in 1908-1909, expeditions that are described in several books of his. I wanted to see if there were any differences in the representations being made, differences that could be explained by the fact that two different indigenous peoples were described, different northern regions that were visited and that the representations were made with a time difference of almost a century.
Surprisingly enough are there many similarities between the representations of Sámi made by Wahlenberg and Lovén and the ones that were made by Peary of Inuit, so many that I would call them "a discourse on indigenous people". The dwellings, domestic life and culture, morals, dispositions, character and physical appearance of the Sámi and the Inuit were described by Wahlenberg, Lovén and Peary.
For instance did Wahlenberg write that the Enare Sámi faces were round and full, the expression pleasing and the air indifferent. There were no ugly Enare Sámi compared to Finnmark Sámi according to him. Enare Sámi rarely had short forehead, wide mouth, hollow cheeks, sharp chin – but not as sharp as the chins of the Finnmark Sámi – a “dark” expression because of frowned eye-brows and not as sharp air as the Finns (Geografisk och ekonomisk beskrifning om Kemi lappmark i Vesterbottens höfdingedöme, 1804: 45-46). Peary made description such as: “these plump, bronzed-skinned, keen-eyed and black-maned children of the Nature” and “inhabitants of an icy desert” (Northward over the “Great Ice”, Vol. I, 1898: 58). Wahlenberg wrote that the Sámi were not just ugly they were also lazy and keen on drinking, but they could also stand hunger and cold. Enduring cold was something the Inuit also could according to Peary: “The Eskimos, through generation of life in the polar regions, have worked out from stern experience the true practice in all such life questions [...]. As a result, when the necessity arises, they are in condition, and have reserve vitality which enables them to endure bitter cold and to go for a long time on scant food” (The Secrets of Polar Travel, 1917: 156). Having skills that were either sprung out the life in a particular natural landscape or had been inherited was also an issue that Lovén discussed: “But the traveller must confess to himself that this despised tribe [the Sami] is the only means of transportation in these northern, barren districts; without this Lapp sense of locality – which certainly would be inconceivable for anyone else – with no deviation at all, the Lapp have proceeded by means of an ongoing, direct intercourse with nature” (Narrative on a trip to Finnmarken and Spitsbergen 1836-1838, vol. 2 : no page number).
Photo: Karin Granqvist
Lovén described the interior of a Sámi tent, kåta (Sw.): “ Dessa kåtor, bräckliga och tunna tält […] är dock fullt ändamålsenliga för Lappen och kunna vara ganska trefliga” [These kåtor, fragile and thin tents […] are fully suited for the Lap and could be rather nice” (1836-1838: no pagen umbers). Presenting the discomfort of a dwelling was also something Peary did when describing a stone igloo: “While a night in spent in one of theses ill-smelling homes with a family of Eskimos is not pleasant, a man engaged in polar work cannot be too particular [...]” (Vol. II, 1898: 224).
The representations were not all negative and bad, there were also positive ones. It appears that the closer the three got to the Sami and Inuit– like when they needed help from them – the more positive were the two indigenous peoples described as. Still, one can detect a discourse of distance with remarks that the indigenous peoples were savages or children of the Nature/Arctic or had low and bad morals. That ambivalent discourse is due to the national, colonial process both Peary as well as Wahlenberg and Lovén were bound together with; no matter what, the three men were still the Explorer, with a big “e”, and the Scientist, with a big “s”, and because of that could they not give too much credit to the Sámi or the Inuit, because then the national, colonial project that these field research trips and polar expeditions would almost have been a hoax, would I dare to say. For example did Peary emphasize that no Inuit had been to the North Pole before him and Wahlenberg that Sámi had low morals compared to Swedes. That was done in order to keep themselves in the(ir) superior roles as the Scientist and the Explorer.
Photo: Karin Granqvist
The narratives and descriptions made on Sámi and Inuit were very much the same because the three men travelled to northern, Arctic regions, and the experiences they got in both the regions and with the indigenous peoples seems to have formed their representations on the two groups of indigenous people so much that they representations boils down to a discourse on indigenous people in the North and the Arctic. The discourse is one and the same because the three explorers and scientists met several indigenous peoples that lived in a similar way; in many cases lived a nomadic life and lived out of what the nature could give them such as animals, fish, and whatever they could get out of nature such as plucking berries like the Sámi did or hunting musk-oxen and polar hare like the Inuit did, and so on. The three men also had a so called ‘mission’ in the regions; they had come there as field research scientists and explorers and therefore had a scientific aim as well as a national, colonial aim and claim with their trips and expeditions – especially in the case of Peary. In this context must I as an historian mention that the similarities in the representations between the two indigenous peoples had nothing to do with type or sources, since the material I have gone through are both published (Wahlenberg and Peary) and unpublished (Lovén).
Describing different people was not a new phenomenon at this time must I add. Exhibitions with people from different parts of the world were set up in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. There existed a public interest in “new” and “exotic” people in Europe in that century. Nevertheless is it interesting to detect an indigenous discourse amongst contemporary scientists and explorers of the North and the Arctic, no matter of nationality, hat cuts through different indigenous groups as well as regions in the northern hemisphere and period of time. This discourse have I for now called the discourse on indigenous people in the North and the Arctic.
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Wednesday, 17 September 2008 21:09
The Indigenous Discourse: Representations of Sámi and Representations of Inuits in the 19th CenturyWritten by Karin Granqvist
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