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Give Us Our Skeletons! 1999

Highly Recommended

Distributed by First Run/Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by Paul-Anders Simma
Director n/a
VHS, color, 88 min.

College - Adult

Date Entered: 11/09/2018

Reviewed by Christopher Lewis, American University Library, Washington, DC

The image of Lapland is probably fixed in most people's minds as a cold place where decoratively-clothed men and women cheerfully herd reindeer. The uniqueness of the Sami culture (the term "Lapp" is considered derogatory) made it a popular subject for ethnographic filmmakers from the 1950s through 1970s.

As revealed in Give Us Our Skeletons!, the truth behind the image is much grimmer. According to the film, the Sami people have been persecuted for centuries by the governments of the countries within whose boundaries they exist, namely Finland, Sweden, and Norway. The suffering of the Samis is crystallized in the story of Niilas Somby, the narrator of the film. Somby, an activist in defense of the Sami people for several years, describes his mission to effect the return of the skulls of two Sami men who had been executed in 1852. The men, Mons Somby (a relative of Niilas) and Aslak Hetta, were executed in the aftermath of a border dispute that left two Norwegians dead. Their skulls had been added to a large collection of Sami skulls at the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Oslo. The bureaucratic interference Somby describes in the film is emblematic of the responses many governments have had to attempts to restore the rights of indigenous populations.

The effort to retrieve the skulls introduces the larger story of the historic subjugation and demoralization of the Samis. The cruelties they have suffered are strikingly similar to those endured by American Indians, South American mestizos, and Australian aborigines, among others. They have been driven off their land, overtaxed, denied protection of their hunting and fishing grounds, and forced to take liquor as payment for meat. To add insult to injury, they have been accorded "indigenous" status only in Norway thus denying them the protections guaranteed by the UN in Sweden and Finland.

The most chilling chapter in Sami history started in the 1920s when Swedish race researcher, Valdemar Lundborg, founded the Institute of Eugenics. He developed a theory on racial purity and believed skull dimensions could be used to indicate one's intelligence, ability, and moral characteristics. To support this theory, researchers combed the earth looking for primitive cultures to scrutinize. Among these were the Samis who were dutifully disrobed, photographed, measured, and catalogued. The measurements were used to confirm the inferiority of the Samis, which led to an increase in persecution including a mass sterilization program, and, in some cases, shock treatment.

The film uses archival footage effectively except for one false note. Nazi-era German propaganda is used to depict the study and glorification of racial purity though no complicity between the Nazis and the Scandinavians is described. This viewer felt that lumping their sins together was misleading.

The film is an eye-opener in that it reveals just how little has been learned from history. The study of eugenics and other theories of racial superiority have been thoroughly discounted yet the effect they continue to have on legislation and popular conceptions of race continue to be evident.

In addition to the anthropological documentaries cited earlier, there is at least one other very good film that addresses the topic of how racial studies are used to justify oppressive and murderous national policies. Der Menschen Forscher (The Anthropologist), directed by Andrea Gschwendtner (distributed by University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning), discusses how anthropologist Rudolf Poch's study of racial purity was later used to support the actions of the Nazis.

The story of the Samis is one that will resonate with anyone who has studied the persecution of indigenous populations. It will also be of interest to those studying anthropology, sociology, history, international studies, and government.

Highly recommended.