The skeleton came from a Sami from the village of Arjeplog in Sweden’s northernmost Norrbotten county, who was serving a life sentence at Stockholm’s Långholmen prison when he died. The skeleton had been on display at Gustavianum, Uppsala University’s Museum.
“The government has today decided that Uppsala University should be able to return human remains, in the form of a mounted skeleton, to the Arjeplog Sami association,” the government said in a press release.
“The university’s request has been prompted by a request from the Arjeplog Sami association requesting the repatriation of the remains. Uppsala University has determined that Arjeplog’s Sami association has a legitimate claim on the remains and that the association will be able to ensure a dignified reception.”
Sweden’s universities and museums have been gradually returning the Sami remains and artefacts collected in the 19th and early 20th century when research institutes such as Uppsala’s State Institute for Race Biology, sought to place Sami below ethnic Swedes through studying eugenics and human genetics.
Lund University returned Sami remains earlier this year, and in 2019, the remains of more than 25 individuals were returned by Västerbotten Museum to Gammplatsen, an old Sami meeting place on the Umeå River in southern Lapland.
Mikael Ahlund, chief of the Uppsala University Museum, said that the skeleton was one of “about 20 to 25” that the museum had been given responsibility for in about 2010, when the university’s medical faculty was clearing out its old collections, and had never been put on display.
He said it was “a bit unclear how these remains were collected and how they were used”.
“It’s a complex history at the end of the 19th century, with teaching anatomy. They also had a connection to the ideology of the period, the idea of races and the different anatomy of races, so that’s the dark shadow of that period.”
In a press release last November, Margaretha Andersson, the head of Uppsala’s Museums, said that in 1892, when the man died, there was nothing strange about prisons donating the bodies of dead prisoners to university medical departments.
“In the old days, it was not unusual that the bodies from people who died in prison were passed to the university’s medical and research departments,” she said.
Ahlund said that the museum had always been willing to return the skeleton to the Sami association, but that there had been bureaucratic hurdles to doing so.
“What you need to know is that we are Swedish government institution, so we can’t just repatriate them as we would like ourselves, it needs to be a decision from the government, which is what happened today.”
He said that the skeleton would be delivered to Arjeplog “as soon as possible”. “We expect it to happen early autumn, or something like that.”