By Ebba Lekvall, Essex Law School
“Today, we acknowledge [these past abuses], and, on behalf of the Church of Sweden, I apologise.”
Those were the words of the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, Antje Jackelén, as she led the reconciliation service in Luelå Cathedral this past Sunday (23 October), and officially apologised to Sweden’s indigenous population for the Church’s involvement in past colonial oppression and abuses. This is part of the Church’s reconciliation process and efforts in dealing with a dark past that has included forced Christianisation, destruction and desecration of Sami religious places and objects, active participation in grave looting in search of Sami remains, deprivation and suppression of Sami identity and culture.
The Sami are the only indigenous people of Europe and their traditional land – Sápmi – stretches across half of modern-day Norway and Sweden, as well as part of Finland and Russia. It is estimated that there are around 100,000 Sami in Sápmi, with 20,000-40,000 in Sweden.
The Sami are believed to have lived on this land for thousands of years. In Sweden, colonisation of Sápmi began in the early 14th century but really took off in the 17th century when silver was discovered. This led to Sami populations being driven further to the north and west, which led to centuries of conflict between the Sami and colonisers as the Sami saw their rights, including to land and water, being curtailed. These rights are still being violated today in breach of international human rights law and Sweden has been criticised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples for its treatment of the Sami, including for the lack of protection for their right to their lands and resources.
The Church of Sweden was instrumental in the oppression of the Sami, who were forced to convert to Christianity (through methods like fines, imprisonment and even the death penalty) and to attend church, where their language and traditional joik singing was banned. As part of the Christianisation of the Sami, the Church also defaced Sami religious sites and destroyed drums used in traditional ceremonies. This contributed to the loss of traditional Sami religion and culture.
In addition, the Church was the main force in organising so-called “nomad schools” for Sami children, which were run between 1913 and 1962. Like the residential schools for indigenous children in Canada, these were boarding schools and based on racist ideology. However, unlike the Canadian schools, the purpose was not necessarily to assimilate Sami children into Swedish citizens. Rather, the schools in Sweden were created based on the understanding that reindeer-herding Sami should live according to what the Church considered to be as close to their nature as possible, whereas non-nomadic Sami should be assimilated into white Swedish society. Therefore, the children of reindeer herders were sent to the nomad schools, where they were provided sub-standard education, where Swedish was the language of instruction and where their own language was banned. Consequently, generations of Sami lost their language.
The Church was also involved in other racist policies. In 1922, the State founded the Institute for Eugenics. Its director, Herman Lundborg, believed in racial purity and argued that ideas about the equal worth of peoples was an illusion (he became an inspiration for German eugenics researchers whose work laid the foundation for many Nazi policies). Lundborg conducted his “research” on the Sami people which led to trauma, lasting generations. He travelled to Sápmi and measured skulls and faces of the Sami, and also collected information about eye and hair colour. He photographed each person, sometimes naked, and a catalogue of pictures with public access is still kept at the library at Uppsala University. Church representatives had a close relationship with Lundborg and they acted as points of contact between Lundborg and the schools and villages he visited.
While the State has remained largely silent and has yet to apologise, the Church has taken the lead in redressing past abuses against the Sami and has begun a reconciliation process which has included mapping its involvement in abuses and holding Ságastamallat (conversation or dialogue in Sami) – where testimonies have been collected about the experiences of the Sami and consequences of the Church’s abuses. The first one took place in October 2011 and the second took place 21-22 October. Two more Ságastamallat are planned – one in 2026 and one in 2031. The Church will then have spent 20 years working on the process of reconciliation.
The current (and retiring) Archbishop has, for many years, made repeated public comments about the Church’s past abuses against the Sami, and called for Sweden to deal with its colonial past. Under her leadership, the Church published a White Paper – “The Sami and the Church of Sweden” – where the Church “examines its guilt and responsibility towards the Sami in [Sweden’s] colonial past.” The White Paper documents past abuses and violations committed. The Church has also published a book about the nomad schools – “When I was eight, I left my home and I have still not returned” – which contains ten testimonies from persons who attended these schools. In the preface, the Archbishop wrote: “The Church took part in the colonisation of Sápmi and actively contributed to exercising power and control over the Sami. We delivered theological thought models that could justify the colonial system. Church representatives also had a driving role in the creation of the nomadic schools at the beginning of the 20th century.”
Last November, the Church made an official apology in Uppsala Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop. This apology was repeated this Sunday in Luleå – which was symboliccally important as Luleå is located in Sápmi. Both apologies were made in Church services that were live streamed and still available online. The services were conducted in both Swedish and Sami. Importantly, the traditional joik was also included, as were several testimonies, including about experiences in the nomad schools and a poem about the racial policies of the Church. Others spoke about the loss of identity across generations, and how the loss of language and land (including land still owned by the Church) has contributed to the loss of culture.
The Archbishop’s apology acknowledged that the Church “has contributed to and legitimised oppression” and that the apology was only one step “forward on the long road of reconciliation.” As part of this road to reconciliation, and linked to the apology, the Church also made eight commitments, including to increase knowledge and awareness of the Church’s historical abuse against the Sami and the consequences of this and to expand knowledge of and respect for the principles of indigenous rights within the Church of Sweden and in society, as well as to preach the Gospel in the Sami languages and in the Sami cultural context, with respect for the Sami spiritual and ecclesiastical tradition.
After centuries of oppression at the hands of the Church, this public apology is an important step in the work done by the Church as part of the ongoing process of reconciliation. However, the Archbishop also acknowledged that “we cannot determine how you will receive this apology. It is not our place to demand to know when a response will be given and what that response will be.” Representatives of the Sami Parliament in Sweden have said that in order for the Sami people to accept the apology, practical action from the Church is needed. It remains to be seen whether the Church is able to deliver on its eight commitments and how the apology will be received by Sami communities.
In further developments, and perhaps spurred on by the Church’s work, the government agreed with the Sami Parliament last year to create a truth commission to “identify and review from a historical perspective the policies the Sami were subjected to and the subsequent consequences for the Sami people.” Commissioners were appointed in June 2022 and are expected to deliver their report in 2025. Little information is currently available about the commission, including details about its mandate, but it does not seem to include a mandate to recommend reparations.
Given the State’s history of dragging its feet when it comes to acknowledging responsibility for its abuses against the Sami, both past and present, and the fact that it refuses to ratify the ILO 169 Convention on indigenous rights, this is perhaps unsurprising. But it would be a missed opportunity nonetheless. At the very least, any reparations provided to the Sami should include acknowledgement of responsibility and an apology. With the Church leading the way, one can only hope the State follows suit.