Let us lift our eyes and look at something else

22 September, 2014

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article that discusses the reburial of indigenous people once exhumed for the benefit mainly of race biology. The article focuses on the ethics of complex situations, questionable already when they occurred. Today, more or less by definition, the roots of the problems belong to a relatively remote past that we are able to judge without too much ado. Thus I too, wise in the event, read:

NAR nummerSvestad, Asgeir. 2013. What Happened in Neiden? On the Question of Reburial ethics. Norwegian Archaeological Review. Vol. 46, No. 2, 194-242. Acronym: ASve.

To most readers Neiden, if anything, is geography, a point on a map of Northernmost Norway and a river where we do not live. The actual place, nevertheless, is a settlement called ‘Skoltebyn’—a place where Skolt Sámi people live, although there are very few left. This place name suggests that non-Skolts, the very great majority, needed to define the place. Skoltebyn is probably full of living traditions with little historical evidence to corroborate or question and reconstruct the past and the present. ASve’s approach is straightforward geographical and historical. He defines the place on a map and in relation to two precisely dated historical events. In essence, his approach is based on facts and the individual opinion of some of those who took part in 1915 and 2011. Wider aspects, the more we know about them, are brought in when necessary, but in principle everything pivots on what happened in July 1915 and September 2011. ASve’s analysis of the two situations is revealing and cautious.

It turns out that history allows itself to play a trick on everyone involved in the two events. Notwithstanding, the central question is simple enough: what, if anything, should be done with the bones from Neiden? Needless to say we know very little about the bones too.

To the physician and odontologist of 1915, Johan Brun, bones and even skeletons were a source material worth describing because without anatomical knowledge there would have been no physicians. Anatomical description wherever possible is thus above the individual physician – ideally speaking. It is difficult, therefore, to accept a physician who for ethical reasons would not be prepared to use the human body as a source material, nor use the evidence-based knowledge about broken bones, often obtained without ethical considerations, to help us. Still today a large number of corpses are anatomized. This doesn’t give Johan Brun the right to go to Neiden and loot a cemetery it just creates an everlasting ethical problem.

The still unsettled cemetery

The reason is simple – we think of our forefathers as our heritage and thus as ours by right! Except of course if we are landowners. If that is the case, we may think that we own what is on our land exploiting it is as best we wish. Landownership as opposed to communal rights is a cornerstone of practical colonialism and the relatively rich Johan Brun took advantage of a relatively poor landowner Ondre Jakobovitsj, who knew that there were inhumation graves on his land. Since his land was not on the early colonial monument still in use, i.e. the Orthodox chapel and churchyard in Neiden, he sold Brun the right or a concession to dig on his land and take skeletons back to Oslo – payment per skeleton. To buy and sell in this way may be seen as unethical and condemned, accepted, pardoned or hailed. Irrespective of our point of view it may in time repeatedly be condemned, accepted, pardoned or hailed.

Only oblivion can save us from heritage and ethical problems, and that is the reason why much heritage legislation is built on oblivion. When something material is no longer used or when it has been forgotten, i.e. when it has fallen into oblivion while still existing, i.e. when its role as meaningful in a living culture has come to an end, then it becomes accepted as everybody’s heritage and protected by law despite the fact that we lack knowledge about it. If it comes to our knowledge it must be treated with respect and preserved as best we can. Since preservation is impossible in the long run, and since knowledge can be reproduced, respecting the past as our heritage is knowledge driven. The more we know, the more will become our heritage and revived material culture. In a democratic society this may solve a lot of ethical problems, but obviously not all.

Brun's excavationBoth Johan Brun and Ondre Jakobovitsj acted unethically because they should have understood that the existing churchyard was no more than a part of a larger burial ground – in all probability its pre-Christian parts, which had fallen into oblivion and thus become part of our common heritage. The ideological colonialism of Christianity, which denounced indigenous culture and faith, is to blame for the oblivion. At least Johan Brun ought to have understood this. Needless to say, in this situation the obvious cannot be proved. Most of what we know about what happened in 1915 is what Johan Brun told us in his report and he steered clear of ethics, context and any wider perspective. The skeletons exhumed were his objective, the living his problem. Bargaining with the locals, Brun spend money, but ASve doesn’t mention whether Brun was compensated for his expenses. It stands to reason, nevertheless, that he was, and if so his description of the way he haggled with Jakobovitsj makes sense inasmuch as it demonstrates that he did not waste money.

*

True to his approach, which is based on Heidegger’s view upon the disclosure of the hidden and the care and being that characterizes humans, ASve goes beyond describing what happened in 1915 and 2011 respectively, and his Heideggerian discussion works quite well. Nevertheless, being and care didn’t characterize the agents when they took part in the disclosed events. Moreover, I don’t think it is possible to lay bare or disclose the 1915 and 2011 events, because there is nothing specific – no essence – to lay bare. Contrary to Heidegger I don’t think that nur ein Gott kann uns retten – only a god can save us – because such an entity cannot be disclosed. Inventing a god or seeing oneself as one, jeopardizes the human, i.e. the agents now and again bothered by ethics. I find enlightenment and emancipation a better approach to ethics.

No ethics will solve ethical problems. Oblivion will erase them, but we learn nothing from oblivion because knowledge in a historical situation, be it past or present, is the only way to come to terms with ethical problems. Knowledge often fails, even if it concerns disclosure, because it is easily disputed by those who take only a limited interest in the obvious. Care and being are roads to ethical shortcomings and Heidegger’s life is a case in point. Being, moreover, is hard to avoid and care is a cornerstone in reproduction – caring for those who cannot survive without it.

ReburialASve is cautious when he describes the events that led up to the reburial in September 2011. One might say that he discloses the events in an unbiased manner rather than he exposes them. While the reader reads between the lines, ASve is true to his sober method – almost. The comment on the Orthodox tradition that governed the reburial is an exception (ASve:211, col. 2).

Actually there is no need to be cautious because the events leading up to September 2011 make up a textbook example of how a majority marginalizes a minority. In this case the Sámi community, the majority among the indigenous people in northern Scandinavia, and organized around Sametinget (the Sámi Parliament), has turned a place central to a minority, the almost extinct Neiden Skolts, into a memorial of its own and a protected heritage area. The Neiden Skolts have been sqeezed into heritage. In this process, as we would expect from a textbook example, the 10 odd Skolts involved have been divided into a larger group of people who find themselves excluded and alienated and a few who back-up the powerful Sámi majority.

Njauddâm sijddAt least since 1826 Skolt identity has been threatened (1). In this year the border between Finland (Russia) and Norway (Sweden) was closed and the Skolt community and its settlement area – both referred to as Njauddâm sijdd lost its land, and began losing its identity, being unable to live in the sijdd in the intended yearly cycle. While the sijdd used to be orientated towards Russia the frontier delimination meant that Spring and Summer was incorporated in Norway, while Autumn and Winter and most of the population stayed in Finland. In Norway the population was concentrated to Njauddâm (Now: Neiden), the summer site of the sijdd, in a permanent settlement called Skoltebyn. For more than a millennium the sijdd’s cemetery and since the 16th c. the orthodox St George chapel and its churchyard were already situated at Neiden. Soon a protestant chapel marked Norwegian colonization and the ideological consequences of the closed border.

neidenkapellkartaThe marginalization of the Skolts and their loss of identity has continued. Their language is no longer spoken in Norway, they are not represented in Sametinget. In effect, Neiden rather than being part of the Skolt Njauddâm sijdd has been culturally annexed by the Sámi and become a site where this people demonstrates its unified heritage and ideology at the expense of the identity of the Skolts. Neiden has become a protected heritage area and a museum site dedicated to Skolt culture. Ironically, as if the authorities awaited Skolt culture and the last Skolt to pass away, the museum building has been left empty and leaking through the roof since 2008.

the burial siteThe reburial fits the cultural demise of the Njauddâm sijdd. As ASve shows Johan Brun excavated more than a sample of Sámi skeletons. He found an unknown cemetery older than the Christianization of the Skolts with a potential of reviving an unknown Skolt history with a potential to illustrate the Skolt interaction with other people. Moreover, given that Neiden was the millennia old summer site of the Njauddâm sijdd it is by no means certain that all the human remains were Skolts. The Neiden Skolts understood this and that was obviously their reason to place the skeletons in a respectful context without destroying them as a source material. In view of losing their history or recovering it, they opted for knowledge. It is obvious from ASve’s analysis that destructing the source material and keeping Skolt history in the firm grip of decay and oblivion to benefit their own ideas of essentialist colonial and Christian ethics guided the representatives of the Sámi establishment. The representatives of the Church of Norway and the representatives of the Orthodox Church, moreover, were supported by the Norwegian Government and its institutions.

There may be utilitarian reasons to destroy remains of the past, mainly the resent past, and the representatives of a society may judge it to be necessary and have the power to act accordingly. In the Neiden case it is difficult to find any reason for anybody except Skolts to destroy Skolt history. An ossuary would have been an alternative to the slow destruction in the burial mound – echoing a distinctly South Scandinavian past – in which the 94 small wooden coffins are now decaying. This mound can be appreciated only as a monument of the colonialist oppression that the Scandinavian majority societies have subjected their minorities to. While doing so, they effectively taught the tame majority groups within the minorities to act likewise against their minorities. Since this is a never-ending process it is important that the Neiden reburial story split the Neiden Skolts. Divide et impera is at the heart of the matter. ASve lets his quotations speak for themselves rather than pointing the reader in the right direction. This is quite an effective strategy not least given the context in which representatives of those in power speak. Here they are at Neiden, literally burying the history of the Neiden Skolts in a mound letting it moulder away, and the Minister for Reform, Administration and Church Affairs says:
‘ – I hope this will remind us of the importance of reconciliation. We should lift our eyes and use this opportunity to look at the need to protect Skolt Sámi language and culture’—Jeg håper dette kan minne oss på betydningen av forsoning. Vi bør løfte blikket og bruke anledningen til å se på behovet for å ivareta skoltesamenesspråk og kultur,

the newspaper adds: ’she thinks.’—mener hun.

Indeed, and she is right, of course! This need to protect Skolt language and culture is visible in the sky only, i.e. above the grey September clouds over Neiden. Moreover, as Minister of Church Affairs it is appropriate in this solemn context to express a pious hope echoing a biblical phrase. In fact, almost anything one could say as an official representative will add to the unintended but nevertheless carefully constructed irony of the occasion.

Only knowledge can save us – nur eine Erkenntnis kann uns retten.

 

NOTES
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(1) The history of the Skolts and the injustices done to them is outlined (in Nowegian) in an official governmental commission 1997 http://www.regjeringen.no/nb/dep/jd/dok/nouer/1997/nou-1997-4/8.html?id=140728

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