Anthropology and ethnography: new disciplines in natural and scientific studies of the Sámi in 19th-century Sweden – a case study.
My research focuses on how Sámi were represented in text and images in four natural scientists’ 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.
They studied, mapped and categorized stones, rocks, ice, plants, and flowers, animals such as birds, reindeers and sea mammals. They also studied the people they met, such as the indigenous people of the Nordic countries, the Sámi. Some of them also had Sámi as guides on their field research trips. Hamberg also had a Sámi, Lars Nilsson Tuorda, as a research assistant in field.
When they described the Sámi they covered topics such as clothes, dwellings, customs, food, tools, language, transportation/vehicles (such as reindeer sledges and skis) and origin in a natural scientific manner, or a mechanical one. Their method – describe, map and categorize – was common already during the Enlightment. That resembled an empirical research with observations, and detailed measurements and studies. For example, Lovén and Wahlenberg describe dwellings, Lovén in a more romantic manner though, as well as clothes and domestic objects. Wahlenberg was the one that very thoroughly described the different languages and dialects he encountered on his field research trip through northern Finland.
Ski – a mean for transportation. Illustration. Photo: Karin Granqvist
Scientifically, these topics – clothes, dwellings, customs, food, tools, language, transportation/vehicles – belong to anthropology and ethnography, two disciplines that were established during the 19th century. The focus within the two disciplines was on the evolutionary process and a society’s evolutionary status in an attempt to place people on different stages in that process. The stages were savagery, barbarity and civilization.
Anthropology and ethnographical studies were very important when it came to sorting people into these different stages. Food could tell something about what a people ate in order to decide if they were barbarians or lead a nomadic lifestyle, or cultivated different types of crops, thus being civilized. Dwellings such as tents or portable homes were seen as representing a nomadic lifestyle, and were therefore categorized as non-civilized. Houses were seen as characteristic for civilization. Language was apprehended as a marker for origin as well as an indication where to place people in the evolutionary process.
Door to portable Sámi hut made out of birch-bark. Illustration.
A well-known study where these topics where used in order to place a group of people on an evolutionary scale is Levis Henry Morgan’s study of the Native American group of the Iroquois from 1881. The Swedish natural scientists covered all the topics mentioned above, but did not as clearly as Morgan connect them to an evolutionary process. Nevertheless, the Swedish natural scientists’ studies did end up in results that singled out the Sámi as the other, different from the Swedes. This was especially reinforced due to the natural scientists’ studies of the Sami’s’ disposition, nature and character, as well as the Sámi’s abilities and origin of knowledge. Wahlenberg made several studies of the Sámi’s character such as their morals and alleged humility and loyalty to Swedish authority. Lovén mapped the Sámi’s alleged inherited sense of location. He described the Sámi in terms of ”tribe” (Lovén, Handlingar rörande manuskript 1836-1838 F1: 6. Berättelse över en resa till Finnmarken och Spetsbergen 2: no page number) which can be interpreted as an attempt to exclude them from a common heritage with Swedes or Westerners, as well as an attempt to place them on a level in the evolutionary scale. Lovén was also one of many biologists and doctors in medicine that later on quickly accepted Charles Darwin’s descendent theory and theory on natural selection (G. Eriksson & T. Frängsmyr, Idéhistoriens huvudlinjer, 1979: 171). It was not only Whalenberg and Lovén that focused on the Sami's disposition, nature and character; Læstadius, a man of Sámi origin and not only a natural scientist but also later on a priest, came to the conclusion that because of the Sámi’s “national character”, they were more or less bound to live a life as reindeer herders, as they had no prospect of doing any other type of work or seek another income. The Sámi therefore were “slaves” to reindeer herding, according to him (Læstadius Om möjligheten och fördelen af allmänna uppodlingar i Lappmarken, 1824: 77).
This interest in a people’s character, as a group, can also be found within Romanticism, or the new Romanticism — to be correct — that followed the Enlightment around the turn of the 19th century. This view influenced the natural sciences. In this world view, the spiritual dimension of nature also becomes important to reveal the inner, deeper, profound meaning of it. Many supporters of romanticism had strong nationalistic interests also. This led to an awakening of interest for every group’s national characteristics, as well as history in the perspective of an evolutionary process. This trend can be detected in Sven Lovén’s descriptions of Sámi as well as of nature itself. He thought that storytelling was a the characteristic trait for the group; he saw Sámi history as contemporaneous with the Æsir, with references to the Icelandic sagas, and also turned their historical origin into a mythical one with references to the Finnish literary epic Kalevala (see my other IPY blog posts). His convictions of the spiritual dimension of nature can be found in his descriptions of nature with reference to the Bible, where the variety of birdsong was seen by him as representing the different languages of Babel (the town in the Bible where God created different language so people could not understand each other). Wahlenberg’s studies of the Sámi had overtones of nationalistic interest as well, since he categorized Sámi in the north of Finland in the work of mapping who belonged to Sweden. In his studies a more mechanic and statistic research method can be found, though. This sheds light on the clear tendency which meant that the scientific ideals of the Enlightment had not been abolished by the advance of Romanticism.
Hamberg was also interested in the Sámi’s abilities, an interest that can bee detected over 100 years after the rise of Romanticism – as that interest moulded itself within natural science. In a book about the Sarek massif written in 1922, Sarekfjällen, he stated that Sámi had great knowledge of making fires, finding fords, and fording. They also had the capability to carry heavy weights, he believed. It is apparent, though, that Hamberg’s images of Sámi looked very similar to the three other natural scientists’ depictions of the Sámi, even if he was not contemporary with the other three scientists. This can be explained by the fact that evolutionary ideas had started to flourish already in the 17th century. Not even with Romanticism had the ideas about an evolutionary process been abandoned. So even if Hamberg made his studies in the Sarek mountain massif at the same time as Charles Darwin published his ideas on evolution, the former’s ideas about Sámi abilities cannot be exclusively be referred to Darwin’s ideas. But the ideas about an evolutionary process continued with Darwinism, even though Darwin introduced ideas such as competition within species (survival of the fittest), based on empirical verified studies. Hamberg’s descriptions of the Sámi’s abilities, as defined by him, were also recommendations, or even warnings, to people with no skills or experience of being outdoors on how to manage and behave when being in the mountains.
What the four scientists had in common is the of division of culture and society – or division of species if one prefer a more scientific labeling – in their studies of Sámi. With detailed studies of Sámi’s culture, society, domestic life, customs, language and origin, they could be defined as a group of people that led a life that was different, and separated, from any other group of people that was defined as Swedish of European, or Western for that matter. The research was a construction of ”the Other” where the natural scientists themselves were what the Sámi were not: civilized, white, male, and bourgeois. The platform for their studies of Sámi was not only natural and scientific, but also anthropological and ethnographical – especially when it came to interests, or choices, of topics as well as theory.
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Thursday, 30 April 2009 08:04
New disciplines in natural and scientific studies of the Sámi in 19C Sweden – a case studyWritten by Karin Granqvist
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