Of “Lappish origin“, and yet “gracious“

Mr. Bullock’s Exhibition of Laplanders.” London Museum of Natural History and Pantherion (Egyptian Hall), 1822. Litograph: Thomas Rowlandson, National Library of Norway. 

In 1822, readers of the British “Times” were informed that one Karen Christiansdatter, despite her “Lappish origin” appeared almost “undaunted“ and “gracious“ before the visitors to London Museum of Natural History and Pantherion, where she, alongside her husband and child, was displayed in a living exhibition. [1] 

As mentions go, this one is seemingly mild. I mean, what is there to complain about when someone is described as “appearing to be gracious“?

As I see it, this review of a live showing of Sámi people, reveals that being a “lapp” and being gracious at that time was considered to be contradictory. And herein lies the root of the problem.

A deeper dive into other characteristics of Sámi people from the same century expose the more common descriptions, including “degenerate”, “primitive”, “filthy”, “dark-skinned”, “ugly“, “poor”, “short, but heavy”, “lazy”, “indecent“, and “squinting”. [2] Not to mention the added comparisons of “appearing like monkeys” [3]

In other words, far from being gracious, most contemporaries perceived the Sámi people to be far inferior to the civilized Westerners, and in fact more likely to be related to animals, or at best a race of beings that had once – in the Stone Age – populated the entirety of Europe. As the far more advanced Homo Sapiens appeared however, what was left of this ancient human race had been driven further and further North, into the Arctic. [4]

To understand the relevance of these characteristics and narratives, we also need to understand the history of colonialism.

During the colonial expansion of the West, not only did the colonizing forces create narratives to justify the stealing of land and people. [5] Racial categories were also created to ensure that the white Europeans appeared superior in all areas, including beauty. Colonial standards were thus invented and imposed onto all. [6]

These standards continue to exist, and they are perpetuated through everyday life, in books, in television, in movies, and in the cosmetic industries. We are bombarded by images of what beauty should be. And what they teach us, is that we as Indigenous, do not conform. We do not meet the standard norms of beauty.

Growing up, this can significantly impact on one’s sense of self; because even when your parents, aunties, uncles, grannies and grandpas tell you that you are beautiful, ironically, it is so much easier to listen to all the others that tell you you’re not. That you are ugly – just a “filthy lapp” or an “ugly monkey” or whatever other derogatory term there is.

I could of course explain why this is in terms of sociology. Studies are for the most part unanimous in their findings of ethnic stigma having a devastating effect, and in their articulation of how stereotypes – when enforced too long – eventually becomes a truth. [7] And while this is certainly important, not to mention valid if we want to understand how we got to where we are today, they tell us nothing about how to fix the problem. Or how we need to have a conversation on the normative standards of beauty.

So how do we push back against this? How do we change how we view ourselves, and how do we get to a place where we can see our beauty, not as a colonial construct, but as what it should be.

One place to start, is to realize that the standards by which we judge our beauty was created by someone else, and these someone else, were the same that wished our Peoples and our cultures dead.

The next step is to look at how we historically have valued and viewed beauty.

Quick disclaimer, it is sadly the case that many of our own value systems in time have been the victims of epistemicide. So, to know what was beautiful before colonialism happened, is sometimes difficult to judge. But not impossible.

In Sámi traditions for instance, beauty is not based on outward appearance alone, but also consider relations to a purpose. [8] Rough and calloused hands for instance, means that you have worked hard to create a life for yourself and others. Large breast and deep set hips from breastfeeding after birth, means that you have brought life into the world. Tanned and weathered skin means that you have lived your life freely, surviving in spite of everything.

Although I grew up thinking I was ugly, when I see myself today, I see my own beauty. It is in my eyes, which I inherited from my father. The cheekbones that I see mirrored on my aunts’ face. The color of my hair, which is the same as my mother and my brothers. The build of my body, which was also the build of my grandmothers’ body. The nose, that I see in my great-grandfathers face. And my lips, even if they are all me and no-one else’s. Nonetheless, in all of these, I see the history of a People that resisted and persevered. I see the will to survive as Indigenous, and for me that is more beautiful than any movie, fashion magazine or designer tells me.  

Quick thanks to all you wonderful people – Ina, Inga Tatjana, Anne, Beate, Ingrid and Tuula – that allowed me to share pictures. It is much appreciated!

Also, thank you Tatjana, for giving feedback and critique!

[1] Altick, Richard D. 1978: The Shows of London. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press., p. 27

[2] Gjessing, Guttorm. 1973: Samer i Sameland. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag., p. 78.

[3] Gjestrum, John A. 1995: «Utstilling av levende mennesker. Ei historie oom samisk kultur og fremmed blikk», in Dugnad Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 93-108, p. 103

[4] Rygh, Oluf. 1867: Aarsberetningfor 1866, Kristiania, [Oslo]: Foreningen til Norske Fortidsmindesmerke Bevaring., p.100.

[5]Henare, Amiria. 2008: Museums, Anthropology, and Imperial Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 69-70

Kjerland, et al. 2009: Kolonitid. Nordmenn på eventyr og big business i Afrika og Stillehavet. Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press.

Munch, Peter Andreas. 1852. Det Norske Folks Historie. Christiania [Oslo], p. 4.

[6] Painter, Nell Irvin. 2011: The History of White People . W. W. Norton & Company

[7] Comaroff, John L. & Jean Comaroff. 1992: Ethnography and t he Historical Imagination. Colorado: Westview Press. p. 53

Mennel, Stephen. 1994: «The Formation of We-Images: A Process Theory», in Calhoun, Craig (Eds) Social Theory and the Politics of Identity, Oxford: Blackwell Publisher Inc, pp. 175 – 197., p. 182.

[8] Pettersson, O. P., Louise Bäckman & Rolf Kjellström. 1979. Kristoffer Sjulssons minnen : om Vapstenlapparna i början af 1800-talet/ upptecknade af O. P. Pettersson. Acta Lapponica. Stockholm.

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