In Uppsala Cathedral, the heart of Swedish Christianity, this week Archbishop Antje Jackelén sat in front of a circle of Sami leaders in traditional dress and TV cameras from Sweden’s state broadcasters and listed her church’s previous crimes.
“You have told about forced Christianity and Swedish colonialism. Sami culture was denied,” Jackelén said in Swedish. “Today we acknowledge this and on behalf of the Church of Sweden I apologize.”
Wednesday’s apology service in Uppsala, the culmination of more than 30 years of discussions and opinion formation, marked a major step forward for reconciliation in Sweden, where the original Sami continue to fight for self-determination and recognition of past injustices committed by church and state. .
After studying the Canadian experience of reconciliation, both the Church and the Sami emphasized that the apology must be followed by concrete actions and came without expectation of forgiveness.
“As we apologize today, we can not determine how you will receive this apology. It is not our place to demand to know when an answer will be given,” Jackelén said in his speech.
“While we wait, we pray to God … that we do not repeat past mistakes.”
As one of its commitments, the church promised to recognize the importance of Sami spirituality and even incorporate it into the Christian worship service after centuries of exclusion and demonization.
Ingrid Inga, chair of the church’s internal Sami council, called it “the starting point for a new relationship between the Church of Sweden and the Sami people.”
The Sami are native to the vast forests and tundra of Arctic Europe, which traditionally graze reindeer, hunt and fish over Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of northern Russia. For centuries, they have been divided by the borders of these countries, all of which have embarked on various programs of forced assimilation.
Although the earliest Christian missionaries are believed to have visited Sápmi, the traditional territory of the Sami, in the 11th century, the Sami say that the church’s process of forced Christianity really began about 500 years later, when the Reformation united church and state.
In a 1,100-page anthology produced for the Church of Sweden in 2019 – seen as an essential prerequisite for the apology – historians documented how the church supported the state in the process of erasing and oppressing Sami identity.
Christian preachers condemned Sami religion as devil worship and forbade it joik, a form of spiritual song used by noaidi, or Sami shamans, to communicate with the spirit world.
In the 17th century, a wave of Puritan witch trials took place, in which Swedish ecclesiastical and state authorities waged an intensive campaign against Sami worship, which they branded as witchcraft. One noaidi, Lars Nilsson, was burned at the stake, and many others were brought to justice for witchcraft.
In the hunt for converts, the Church of Sweden produced the first scripture in the Sami languages, in translated Bibles. But in the 20th century, there was active suppression of the Sami languages in church schools.
The reindeer herders were segregated into subordinate “nomadic schools”, which tried to “protect” them from civilization as an “inferior race”.
As in Canada, these ecclesiastical schools became theaters for humiliating scientific experiments and clerical abuses. Racial biologists also conspired with bishops to unearth the remains of Sami children and the elderly – many of whom are still in museum collections across Europe.
Other Sami, who were not considered sufficiently nomadic by Swedish authorities, were forced to assimilate, which drives divisions in society that still exist today.
Christianity and “religion of origin”
But today many Sami are still devout Christians. A revival movement from the 19th century produced an indigenous form of Lutheranism that transformed societies damaged by the suppression of traditional activities.
“Many Sami believe that Christianity is their original religion, because the Sami have been practicing Christianity for centuries,” says Helga West, a Sami theologian who studies the reconciliation processes that are taking place in the three Nordic countries. (Her Sami name is Biennaš-Jon Jovnna Piera Helga.)
“Still … there are many Sami who do not want to get involved in these churches at all.”
Thomas Colbengtson, originally from Tärnaby, grew up in the Lutheran Church and attended nomadic school. He says the experience left him with a “mixed feeling” about his own identity.
“In a way, you have double debt – debt [for] to be Sami, debt [for] to be Swedish, debt [for] may not practice Christian religion, guilt [for] to be a Christian …. That’s the sensitive thing to talk about. “
In a former glassworks in Stockholm’s suburb, Colbengtson struggles with that tension as a Sami artist. His latest work, based on one noaidi drum, will be shown near the altar of the Church of Sweden.
“Part of it is provocation,” he said, “and del part is to visualize Sami presence in the area and Sami culture as [they have] tried to delete. “
Spiritual destruction – and renewal
Guided by the Canadian process of truth and reconciliation, the Church has largely focused on documenting historical errors. But West says it has not yet agreed on how it has changed Sami spirituality forever.
“Christianity in general brought with it this hierarchical and linear view of the world that was very different from the Sami cosmic vision, which was pluralistic,” she said. “They were forced to think differently about the world, about their ancestors, about their methods, which were branded as pagan and backward.”
Some Christian Sami have managed to unite these identities within themselves. Nilla and Nik Märak, two sisters from Jokkmokk, learned from their father, Johan, a famous Sami priest, who broke barriers by taking joking into the church for the first time.
“He used to say that God was with the Sami before the church,” Nik said with a laugh.
“He knew that by… being a preacher in the Church and bringing the two worlds together, he could, only through his presence, actually go quite far. [toward] reconciliation, said Nilla.
For Nilla, who handed out communion bread at Wednesday’s service in Uppsala, the church’s recognition of previous wrongdoings is an important step in itself.
“A big part of reconciliation, and the healing that is coming, we hope … is to realize that there has been harm,” she said. “The Sami religion has been damaged, and the Sami soul has been damaged.”
Wednesday’s service included eight concrete commitments to reverse the historic annihilation of Sami culture, meant to counteract early notions among Sami that public excuses, such as those in Canada, would only be performative.
Among them are promises to preach in the Sami language, educate congregations about past crimes and make Sami traditions a more visible part of the Christian worship service.
“I hope that the Sami really trust the Church of Sweden, that it is true, that we want Sami spirituality as part of the church,” says Bishop Åsa Nyström, whose diocese of Luleå covers the northernmost third of Sweden and includes many Sami communities. . “It is so important that the Sami can have priests and deacons … from their own people.”
Some say the church can still do more. Northern dioceses such as Nyströms receive income from the vast forests they manage. But Åsa Larsson Blind, vice chairman of the transnational Sámi council, says that they do not run international certifications that would require co-administration with the Sámi.
To critics, the biggest shortcoming in Wednesday’s church apology may be that the Swedish government was not to be seen.
– It is only the church that does the work, said Nilla Märak. “The Swedish government is doing nothing. They hardly even realize that there is a need for a reconciliation process.”
Many of the crimes documented by the church were committed in the service of a colonizing Swedish state, which tried to drive the Sami away from profitable land and divide them with borders.
Yet the state’s own process of reconciliation has barely begun. The Swedish government, which was first discussed more than 15 years ago, only this month announced a truth commission, which will primarily focus on fact-finding during its four-year mandate.
“It is very, very important, but it is not a reconciliation process,” said Nyström.
At the same time, the Swedish government continues to fight Sami reindeer herders in court for the right to build mines and power plants on their land. It has refused to ratify international conventions recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples.
A landmark The Supreme Court’s decision in the Sami village of Girjas seems to have established an obligation to consult with the Sami. But the government continues to interpret it narrowly.
“They avoid the whole question,” said Larsson Blind. “And by not addressing the issues, they let business as usual … just keep going.”
As part of his evidence in court, the government representative read a statement from 1884 which stated that Sami shepherds live “on a less cultured level” and must “give way to the more civilized people”.
Two ministries within the Swedish government with responsibility for Sami issues rejected CBC requests for comment.
To make an ally of the Church
Many of those present at Wednesday’s service hope the apology will be a turning point for the church, making it a crucial ally in the work to get the government back.
– I think that the church that has the platform and voice in Sweden that they have, they can actually play a big role in this, says Larsson Blind.
Within the church, meanwhile, the long and difficult work of regaining trust in Sami Christians and their communities begins.
“In some time … [Sámi people may] take this excuse and forgive the church “, said Inga, chairman of the Sami Church Council.” But this is not the right time for it. “