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  • Lauren Salim

Sweden’s former State Institute of Racial Biology and a look to the Future of the Truth Commission

December 2, 2021

A Nordic Sami family in traditional costumes from Finland, 1936. (Photo: Kortcentralen Helsingfors)

Earlier this fall, Finland and Sweden announced the creation of truth and reconciliation commissions to examine the abuse and historical treatment of the Sami minority. These statements come after years of work in both countries to identify the scope and plan for the commissions. The Sami, the only indigenous people within the geographic area of the European Union, live in what is now known as Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia. Today, there are roughly 30,000 Sami living in Sweden and roughly 10,000 living in Finland.

Finland’s commission will hear testimony from Sami people to collect their experiences of abuse by the Finnish state and improve general awareness of the impacts of these past abuses on Sami people today. Sweden’s commission will analyse policies, implementation, and other practices to assess their effect on the Sami while also increasing awareness to facilitate reconciliation. Both commissions will examine events from colonization of the Sápmi (Sami land) and historical and modern abuses. Finland's report is expected by November 2023 and Sweden's by the end of 2025.

Finland and Sweden have explicitly mentioned the importance of Sami involvement and ownership in this process. In March 2021, Sweden’s Sami Parliament, which was formed in 1993, submitted a report outlining how the truth commission should be structured. Notably, statements made by Sami on the impacts of racism in Sweden are impactful ways for understanding the effect the racist and discriminatory practices had and continue to have on their victims.

Alongside interviews with elders and other members of the Sami community, historical sources will be essential to commission researchers as they look to analyse and study human rights abuses against the Sami. An important and well-documented area that needs to be explored is the actions of Sweden’s State Institute for Racial Biology (SIRB).

In 1921, Sweden became the first country to form a national institute focused on the study of racial biology based out of Uppsala University. The institute’s early projects focused on charting racial traits of the Swedish population and, “in particular, studying the alleged dangers of race-mixing between white Nordic individuals and the Sami minority”. This research included measuring and documenting characteristics of the Sami, like length of skull and width of nose, and photographing them naked often by force, cataloguing traits with the purpose of asserting the superiority of the white Nordic peoples. Their supposed superiority was often attributed to an idea of purity, that Scandinavian countries were not so recently invaded and thus had less mixing of races than other parts of Europe. These theories developed alongside the eugenics movement and efforts to ‘scientifically’ prove their legitimacy created a plethora of injustices against the Sami within Sweden.

Additionally, researchers used these theories to justify a variety of practices under the guise of science or the advancement of society at large, including “the forced sterilization of Sami people and the plundering of graves for remains to use in experiments”. Officials who performed the sterilizations “believed they were helping to build a progressive, enlightened welfare state”.

In the 1930s, the institute was criticized for not providing tangible solutions for medical or social problems, and in 1958 the institute was disbanded. Uppsala University holds archived records of the correspondence from SIRB’s director and documents and photographs from this period of the Institute. Uppsala’s archives, combined with victim statements and old newspaper articles, give the modern audience a sense of what sociological ideologies drove SIRB researchers and those in charge of sterilization programs to their belief that such practices constituted real science, and were ‘acceptable’ and encouraged at the time. While these scientific rationalizations of human rights abuses against the Sami are disturbing, they, in tandem with victim statements and newspaper articles, are required for a more robust understanding of the events and the ways in which that trauma could be ongoing 100 years later.

The work of the institute to exploit the Sami is deplorable, but it was certainly not the start nor the end for discrimination against Sami peoples. Starting in 1550, the Sami were used by Sweden to increase royal revenues by placing Sami land under royal jurisdiction and instating taxes on fur, fish, and other goods produced by Sami peoples. Sami children were also sent to boarding schools with the intention of assimilating them into Swedish culture. At the schools, Sami children were asked to reject Sami culture and language in favour of Swedish culture. The Sami were not recognized as Indigenous peoples of Sweden until 1977, and the lack of this distinction likely prevented them from some protections afforded to Indigenous peoples.

More recently, members of the Sami Parliament point to present infractions upon the Sami as tied to the work of SIRB and continue to see its legacy within the removal of territory for mining operations and a lack of respect shown towards Sami freedom.

A hundred years later, some form of reparation is hopefully in sight. Recent progress to launch truth commissions is promising, and HRRC will continue to monitor both Sweden's and Finland’s commissions.


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