Bring out their dead

Daily Parse | Sweden’s Sámi want the country’s museums to hand over the remains of their ancestors

(📸 Lola Akinmade Åkerström /

Kevin McGwin

The Sámi community in Sweden has a simple request: they would like to rebury their dead.

According to a count undertaken in 2015, there were probably 15 full Sámi skeletons and 53 craniums stowed at 11 museums around the country. Today, the number is considerably fewer; 25 craniums were reinterred in 2019 as part of a major “repatriation”, and another, belonging to a man who had never been buried, was interred this year.

Most of the remains were collected in the 19th and early 20th centuries for use in anatomy studies and the study of “racial biology”, a discredited scientific discipline based on theories about the biological differences between races, popular in Sweden from the 1920s to the 1950s.

In 2007, the Sámediggi, a representative body for people of Sámi heritage in Sweden, called for all Sámi skeletal remains be identified and returned after it was determined that an inventory of all human remains in Swedish museums two years prior had undercounted the number of Sámi remains.

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Since then, reversing the wheels of injustice has been slow, but, in recent years, the pace has picked up; museum directors who formerly resisted efforts to hand over remains are now more co-operative, Sámi leaders say.

Today, few disagree that the best place for the remains is in the ground, not in museum storage (for ethical reasons, they have been removed from display), but museums say that they are bound to follow procedure, which includes receiving a formal request from a descendant, before they can hand over skeletal remains.

Last year’s handover was made easier by the fact that it was known where the craniums had been taken from when they were disinterred in the 1950s, but this is rare. Most of the remains are not identified, and families or descendants were not made aware the remains were being removed, making any claim of relation difficult to prove. In order to be able to ask to have one of your ancestors returned, you must know that they had been dug up in the first place, the Sámi point out.

The largest collections of remains are known to be in the university archives in Lund and Uppsala, and it is the latter that may hand over the next tranche after a request was made this week by a local Sámi group for the museum to do so.

The six full skeletons and the 23 bones from various individuals being stored in Uppsala were a part of the collection of Statens institut för rasbiologi, the national racial-biology institute, which was housed at the university. The institute no longer exists; that the university appears to be standing in the way of Sámi efforts to rebury their dead suggests to them that the attitude that prevailed when their remains were collected still does.

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