This 88-page booklet by Åsa Virdi Kroik is named “You’d rather lose your head than turn in your drum”. The title refers to shamanic drums among the Saami. The book is based on an MA thesis in the history of religion defended at the University of Stockholm in 2006. Reading it, I soon realised that it can’t simply be evaluated from a scholarly point of view: this is at heart also an ethno-political tract. I’ll comment on the political aspects first and then on the scholarly ones.
For the non-Scandy reader, I should explain that the Saami are a sub-Arctic indigenous minority in Norway, Sweden, Finland and NW Russia. They speak a number of Fenno-Ugric dialects that are incomprehensible to the majority populations of the area. Historically, their presence has been documented about as far back as that of the area’s Indo-European speaking groups, to the early 1st Millennium AD. At that time the Saami were hunter-gatherer-fishers, and for the past millennium they have also been reindeer pastoralists. Since appearing on the historical radar, the Saami have steadily been driven into increasingly marginal areas by the agricultural majority populations. They were forcefully Christianised in the 18th century and their languages were suppressed into the 20th century. Today they are thoroughly modern people with a high general level of education. US readers will recognise the situation: the Saami are northern Fenno-Scandia’s First People, and they currently cultivate a nationalistic movement.
Kroik has been funded by the Swedish Saami Parliament, both while writing her thesis and in producing the book. Her publisher is Boska, “The Society for the Preservation of Saami Culture and Folk Medicine”. She grew up in a reindeer pastoralist family, she believes that reindeer pastoralism has gone on “since time immemorial” or “for ever”, she feels that three mountains visible from her childhood homes are “holy mountains with a special importance for the Saami people”, and she speaks nostalgically about “the old Saami gods”. All this is imparted in the book’s first few pages. Further into the book she keeps making statements about how Saami people are today, how important the landscape is to them all, what their goals and feelings are like. This is called ethnic essentialism, and it’s not a respectable position in modern academe, to say the least.
Now, I’m an anti-nationalist. I reject all claims to deep ancestral heritage, be it by Swedes, Saami, Finns, Germans or Native Americans. My Swedishness is not the Swedishness of my Medieval ancestors. Kroik’s Saaminess is not the Saaminess of her Medieval ancestors. And I’m quite sure she isn’t actually equipped to speak for all Saami of today.
I believe that all citizens of a secular democracy should enjoy equal rights and shoulder equal responsibilities. And I believe that ethnic guilt is not heritable: if my great-great-grandfather committed atrocities toward Kroik’s great-great-grandfather, then this is not my responsibility. What is important is that Kroik and I treat each other fairly now. Finally, I believe that the cultural heritage in all its diversity is aesthetically valuable regardless of ethnic labels.
Enough of politics. On to scholarship, to the fascinating study of the twilight of Saami ethnic religion! Kroik follows the lead of professor Håkan Rydving in studying micro-variation in Saami culture. Her area of study is Frostviken (where she grew up) and Namdalen, straddling the border between Norway and Sweden. Sadly, as I moved through the book’s drawn-out preliminaries, waiting for the actual study to begin, I finally realised that it contains no original research into Saami religion. It’s just a compilation of other scholars’ results, selected and held together by the geographical study area.
Many MA theses are of course not independent research projects, and the general level of independence varies from discipline to discipline. But this text would never have received a cum laude (“VG”) grade in my discipline for its contents, and formally speaking it’s an amateurish piece of work, the tense varying haphazardly etc. So it appears clear that the reason that the Saami Parliament funded the project can’t have been its academic or literary qualities. They liked it because of its politics.
Of course, when an ethnic Swede like myself criticises Saami nationalism, he invites angry comments about colonialism, fascism, even genocide. To try to avoid this knee-jerk response, just let me explain that I’m from Stockholm, far from the Saami area, and I have no stake in the land disputes over Saami reindeer herding. I have nothing against Saami people or Saami culture, just against nationalism and blood-and-soil politics. I’m not voicing this criticism as a representative of any “Swedish nation”, because I don’t accept that there is any such thing. In my view, myself and Kroik are simply both citizens of the secular democracy of Sweden, and I don’t like her book much.
Update 10 December: A historian of religion I know tells me that professionals in this discipline generally find Kroik’s New Age tendencies odd. Her mindset is not typical for scholars at the Stockholm department or elsewhere.
Kroik, Åsa Virdi. 2007. Hellre mista sitt huvud än lämna sin trumma. Boska. Hönö. 88 pp. ISBN 978-91-633-1020-1.
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