Saturday, January 29, 2022

Sámi drum repatriated to Sámi Museum by Denmark


On January 24, 2022, a seventeenth-century Sámi drum passed into the ownership of the Sámi Museum (RDM) in Karasjok, Norway. In a rare act of repatriation, the National Museum of Denmark formally transferred the drum, which had been at the Sámi Museum on deposit since 1979. 

This sacred drum had been the prized possession of the Sámi Anders Poulsen (Poala-Ánde), a herder in Finnmark, Norway, who brought his reindeer to the Varanger Fjord seasonally, and who had learned the noiadi arts from his mother. He was caught up in the witchcraft hunts of the seventeenth-century, and one of the last to be convicted. After his arrest in 1691, he was brought to Vadsø, a fishing town on the coast and the administrative center of East Finnmark. This was in the period when Denmark ruled Norway from Copenhagen through governors and magistrates appointed in Copenhagen. 

Sacred seventeenth-century Sami drum

Imprisoned in Vadsø, Poulsson was interviewed and charged with “diabolic sorcery,” and eventually put on trial. The main evidence against him was that he owned and used a sacred drum, which was by this time forbidden by law, both by the church and state. He had no lawyer, only a translator who was also on the side of the prosecution. His answers to his interrogation formed most of his written “confession,” which was then used as a basis for the trial. The drum itself, as Exhibit A, was on trial as well, an object of fascination and revulsion to the magistrate and prosecutor.

Anders Poulsson was convicted, but his sentence was postponed until the authorities in Denmark could weigh in. Only a day after the verdict, as Poulsen lay sleeping, a young male servant known for his unstable and bizarre behavior murdered the Sámi elder with three blows of an axe, explaining that he was a sorcerer and deserved to die. There was little justice in this case, given that Poulsen had already been found guilty and would have been executed anyway—a decision confirmed by the high court in Denmark the following year. The children of Poulsen petitioned for half of the money raised from selling Poulsen’s reindeer for their mother’s welfare.

Once Anders Poulsen was dead, his drum belonged to the Danish crown. It was not destroyed but sent down to Copenhagen, where it became part of the Royal Kunstkammer, and eventually the Ethnographic Collection in the National Museum of Denmark. It is one of only a few drums remaining whose figures were explained in some way by its original owner.

The museum in Karasjok keeps the original in climate-controlled storage and displays a replica in the exhibition hall. Another facsimile copy is on display at the Varanger Sámi Museum near Vadsø, where the trial took place over three hundred years ago. The replica is painted with red pigment made from alder bark, symbolizing blood.

The Norwegian Sámi Parliament has been negotiating with the National Museum for many years for the return of the drum, and as the new renewal date approached in December, 2021, the negotiations became more intense, with the then-president of the Norwegian Sámi Parliament, Aili Keskitalo, raising the question of repatriation with the UN and EU. Keskitalo even made a public request to the Queen of Denmark to draw attention to the issue. 

In January, 2022, the Danish Cultural Minister, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, announced that the National Museum would remove the Sámi drum from the Danish museum’s holdings, stating that it made sense to do so, since there was a historical connection to the drum in that area of Norway, and it had been displayed at the Sámi Museum for so many years. She added in a press release that “Normally, there is no question of removal to museums in other countries, but in this specific case, permission has been granted.”

Meanwhile, in Karasjok the reaction was jubilant. Sámi Museum director Anne May Olli told a reporter for the Norwegian paper VG, “It feels good to have formal ownership to something that is already ours. And that our own cultural heritage is recognized. It is important not only for us, but for the whole of Sápmi.”



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