Front Page







World Summary

On Air


Talking Point


Text Only


Site Map

Monday, December 15, 1997 Published at 20:52 GMT


Norway returns skulls of Lappish dead
image: [ Norway's tiny Sami community lives in the far northern province of Finnmark ]
Norway's tiny Sami community lives in the far northern province of Finnmark

Norwegian scientists have returned the heads of two Lappish men who were killed and decapitated 150 years ago for their part in an insurrection.

The return of the skulls of Mons Somby and Aslak Hetta marks a victory of sorts for Norway's 30,000 Lapps, who live in the harsh terrain of the country's far north, inside the Arctic Circle.

The nomadic Lapps, who prefer to be known as Sami, also live in Sweden and Finland and have traditionally followed the area's reindeer herds, which provide them with meat, milk, hides and fur.

But their lifestyle is being eroded by the temptations of modern life and the Norwegian Government's policy of harnessing the far north's hydro-electric power potential.

In the 1980s some Sami activists blew up bridges to protest at the building of the Alta dam, which prevented the movement of reindeer.

[ image: The controversial hydro-electric dam near Alta]
The controversial hydro-electric dam near Alta
Campaigners claim scientists from Oslo "robbed" Lappish graves between the 1920s and 1950s to try and confirm their belief that the Sami were inferior to the Norwegian people.

Relatives of Somby and Hetta have now succeeded in getting their skulls brought home in caskets, where they have been buried.

The priest at their funeral said: "The digging up and taking away of Sami remains from Sami churchyards for research is a dark and regrettable chapter in our recent history."

Nilis Somby, who fought for 10 years before succeeding in persuading Oslo University to hand over his ancestor's skull, refuses to attend the ceremony because he says Christianity is an alien religion that is part of Norway's subjugation of the Sami.

Mr Somby lost his arm in the Alta demonstrations when dynamite he planted under a bridge blew up as he tried to defrost it.

[ image: The two Sami skulls are contained in these white caskets]
The two Sami skulls are contained in these white caskets
Now back in his homeland after returning from exile in Canada, he is angry at the way young Sami children are forced from their roots and encouraged to ignore their heritage as reindeer herders.

The Norwegian Government claims there are too many reindeer but attempts to restrict numbers have increased resentment.

Mons Sonby and Aslak Hetta were beheaded in 1852 after they led a raid on the church in Kautokeino, killing two men. Skulls began to be removed in the 1920s.

Edil Hetta-Eriksson, who saw bones and skulls being removed as a child, is one of the last living witnesses to the "grave-robbing".

"When I grew up and learnt about Sami history I found out that it was for research - to prove that the Samis were an inferior race and not as good as the Norwegians."

Sami skulls and bones were measured as part of a eugenics programme carried out in Oslo.

[ image: Edil Hetta-Eriksson:
Edil Hetta-Eriksson: "Strangers collected all the bones in large sacks. We didn't understand why."
Ironically, the idea of Nordic superiority gave rise to Vidkun Quisling, whose right-wing puppet government ruled under the Nazis.

Mrs Hetta-Eriksson says it angers and hurts her to see relatives and ancestors referred to in the scientific manuals as mere statistics.

"The Sami people often feel trampled on. It is proof of how we were treated," she said.

Oslo is the home of the Nobel Peace Prize and not the sort of place you would expect to find Norwegians' own human rights under question.

But far-right politicians made gains in this year's elections, partly due to resentment at the Sami's new consultative parliament, and now there is a far greater scandal brewing.

Anthropology professor Per Holk, who has 7,000 Norwegian and Sami skulls in his cellar, said he has evidence the first people to settle in northern Norway were ethnic Norwegians and not the Sami, who may have migrated from Siberia.

But he is keen to keep politics and science apart. When asked what the consequences of his discovery could be, he says: "I dare not think about it."

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage

[an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive]
Internet Links

Sami Culture Page

More information about the Sami

Norwegian Embassy in London

Information on the Alta Dam

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.