FARAVID 33/2009


Veli-Pekka Lehtola, Lapp caravans off the path, cultural envoys on tour? Performing Sámi culture in anthropological exhibitions at the beginning of the 20th century

At least 30 Sámi (Lappish) groups are known to have travelled in Europe with their reindeer in so-called ”Lapp caravans”, presenting Sámi culture to Europeans from the mid-1800s to the 1930s. The Lapp caravans were viewed critically by the media already at the beginning of the latter century. Afterwards, they have been brought into further disrepute among Sámi themselves and the researchers, considering the caravans being on a wrong track or “off the path” (Gunnar Broberg: “Lapp karavaner på villovägar”). It has been claimed that the Sámi were exhibited in zoos in the same way as wild animals, and they have been compared to prisoners from the colonies, shown to curious spectators. The caravans have usually been criticized in the light of racial theories and social Darwinism.

According to the article, the anthropological exhibitions that presented peoples of the world can also be studied as “mass media” of that time, reaching large numbers of spectators, or they can be considered as a part of the European way to represent other cultures, in addition to museums or literary descriptions. The perspective of the Sámi themselves focuses on the cultural confrontation. The article is discussing the experiences and histories of three Lapp caravans, raised in the Finnish Sámi area in 1910, 1925 and 1930. The Sámi participants of the caravans were hired performers who presented their roles following terms and conditions that were set by outsiders.

The author of the article warns against underestimating the abilities of the Sámi to assess their own role as participants of the exhibitions. There is no doubt that the Sámi were made to suffer the influences of racial theories and the contempt of superiority by the spectators but they certainly also met positive reactions in these encounters. They must have considered themselves as envoys or ambassadors of their culture, providing a more vivid and personal image of their people.

The organizers had their own concepts and criteria for the “genuine Lapp culture”. As hired performers, the Sámi were fulfilling these expectations even in amusing ways. Many examples show that the Sámi performers could even adopt an ironic attitude towards their role as “the wild people” and “the lower race”. However, there were many kinds of attitudes towards the Lapp caravans also among the Sámi people. The Sámi movement, rising in the Scandinavian countries at the beginning of the 20th century, took a very critical stance towards them, while individual Sámi families could use them as a way to earn money and have nice experiences travelling abroad.


Faravid 33/2009