Skeleton in the closet
Indigenous law states that the Sami are a native people of Norway. Now, modern DNA researcher want to contribute to more accurate knowledge about the Sami people’s origin by comparing DNA from contemporary Sami people to that of ancient Sami skeletons. But the Sami Parliament does not support such research.
“We have received this query in the Sami Parliament, and I have noticed that many are against it,” said the Sami Parliament’s President Egil Olli to NRK.
“What will they use the research for? Political motives, or to prove that the Sami are not the Sami?” said Olli.
The skeletal research which the Sami Parliament does not want would be of unnamed individuals from a distant past. They have no known descendants. The University of Oslo is working on a unique national project, in which DNA from 800 livingNorwegians is to be compared with DNA from people who lived and died in Norway over 1000 years ago. The goal is to determine what relationship there is between them and us.
But Sami skeletons are excluded from this research.
“As scientists we are interested in studying all peoples and individuals, but current regulations forbid us to work with Sami remains without special permission from the Sami Parliament. We have limited time and cannot wait for such special permits,” says DNA scientist Maja Krzewinska.
The Sami Parliament has jurisdiction over all the old skeletons believed to be Sami, and they decide what research can be done.
If archaeologists dig out a putative Sami grave today, it is not permissible to remove the bones from the grave and take it to the university for storage and research, as can be done in any other excavation.
Sami skeletons can only be examined on-site. Then they buried again.
From previous excavations, there are just under 1000 old Sami skeletons stored at the Anatomical Institute in Oslo. The skeletons are locked in a separate room, separated from the other skeletal material. Many of these skeletons were dug up early in the 1900s for use in skull measurements.
Contemporary researchers described the Sami as a primitive race. In several cases, excavations occurred amidst strong protests from local people. Many believe it is unethical to conduct research on skeletons that have been obtained in such an unethical manner.
The Sami Parliament has been unable to answer how many of the skeletons were dug up in such an unethical manner, or whether these skeletons must always be excluded from any research.
The Sami Parliament has on two occasions approved research on the skeletons that were dug up in unethical ways, according to senior adviser Audhild Schanche.
This was not, however, DNA research, but the measurement of bone in a time perspective, and dating of 10 individuals from Neiden.
In autumn, 94 nameless skeleton from the Middle Ages were extracted from the collection and sent to Neiden in Eastern Finnmark, where they were dug up in 1915 for use in skull measurements.
The local Orthodox church called for re-burial of the skeletons, and the Sami Parliament granted the request.
In this way, the Sami Parliament has tried to correct the injustice against the Skolt Sami locals.
But several of the Skolt Sami believed that the re-burials weren’t the right course of action. They wanted research on the skeletons, to learn about who they were. This is the best way to correct old wrongs, they believe.
“Now we had a chance with the remains that had already been dug up, to perform DNA analysis, that is, to find out where they really came from,” said Karina Mathisen.
Her great-grandmother was Skolt Sami from Neiden.
At the last minute, a sample of the 94 skeletons was taken, to enable research later. But still, the Sami Parliament has to decide what research can be done.
Archaeologist and dig researcher Asgeir Svestad at the University of Tromso does not understand Parliament objections.
“You will obviously be critical to all research and all the results. But that which will prohibit known scientific methods and results, I have a big problem understanding. What about the ethics of preventing future generations of gaining this knowledge?” asked Svestad.
To DNA scientist Maja Krzewinska at the University of Oslo, it seems a pity that skeletons cannot be researched.
“As a scientist, I think this is a shame. With this technology we can give voices and faces to a people who lived and died long ago. It cannot be wrong. But it’s not my choice, there are descendants who must decide what they will do with their ancestors’ remains,” emphasized Krzewinska.
DNA research on contemporary Sami have been long running. Samples were collected as early as the 90s from Finland, Sweden and Norway.
“We set the criterion that in order to participate in this study, all the grandparents had to be Sami-speaking, and have a genetic relationship,” said the Sami doctor Egil Utsi to NRK.
Research on DNA tests can show how the Sami ancestors lived more than 20,000 years ago – when Norway was still covered with ice. But such DNA tests cannot determine when Sami ancestors came to the Northern hemisphere. Here, DNA from the ancient skeletons can provide answers.
“When it is possible to get such authentic material, it is an advantage because we cannot see all of the demographic history from the DNA of living people. If the entire population in an area died out or moved, for example, so that the population was replaced, we could not see it any other way,” says DNA scientist Kristiina Tamber from the University of Tartu, Estonia.
Egil Utsi thinks such research cannot be compared to the past primitive race theories.
“This is entirely different. This is completely neutral. It only tells about the human journey and history, nothing else,” said Utsi.
“I think we’ve gotten that question in the Sami Parliament, to investigate the Sami in regards to identity, family – the foundation,” says Sami Parliament President Egil Olli, who argues that many are against such research.
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