Focus on Sami identity and health
Name: Peter Sköld, Professor of History, Development of Sami Society and Culture
The Swedish Sami are the population group that have enjoyed the best development of health of all indigenous peoples. The main explanation for this is that they have been integrated into Swedish society reasonably well. But assimilation ahs also meant that that their cultural vulnerability has increased and that identity has become an increasingly complex concept.
– The other indigenous peoples are far behind the Sami as regards development of health. On the other hand, there are no major differences between Sami and the rest of the Swedish population. The life expectancy of the Australian Aborigines, however, is 20 years shorter compared to the rest of the population. If we can identify the mechanisms behind the Samis’ health development, this would greatly benefit other indigenous peoples, says Peter Sköld.
His academic field is Historical Demographics – the study of population growth in a long-term perspective.
– I began as a historian and wrote a thesis on the history of smallpox at the same time as I was teaching medical and Sami history. Since it is difficult to pursue research in two areas of front-line research at the same time, I realised that I would have to choose one, a choice that the establishment of the Centre for Sami Research made much easier for me to make.
Few died of smallpox
But his smallpox research also concerned the Sami population to some extent.
– Demographic, cultural and social perspectives interact in our understanding of the spread of the disease. While the native Indian population of North America was almost wiped out, mortality among the Sami was lower than for the Swedish population as a whole.
In Peter Sköld’s opinion, the difference was largely due to how the Sami perceived and understood the disease.
– They saw smallpox as an evil spirit. The rest of the population became fatalists, since almost everyone was infected. They gathered undaunted round sick-beds, spreading the disease still further. The Sami took their families, their tents and their reindeer and moved away from the disease and the evil spirit, which reduced the spread.
From cradle to grave
Conditions for demographic research are particularly favourable in Sweden thanks to the detailed notes about people’s health and social status that were made in the parish registers and that have more recently been digitalised.
– Thanks among other things to the Sami population database we can conduct research that is impossible anywhere else in the world. We can follow people from the cradle to the grave, through generations – from the beginning of the colonial period to its end.
Indigenous people around the world have a common experience of colonisation and they are today in the minority, with languages, industries and identities that differ from the majority society.
– They have lost the autonomy and power over their own communities they once had. Rights issues are today at the very top of the Sami political agenda.
But Peter points out that it is important not so regard the Sami as a homogenous group.
– The classification of who is Sami or not plays a major role for identity. Many of the rules instituted by Swedish authorities have had a substantial impact on how the Sami see themselves today.
The suicide cliff myth
Peter is about to embark on a study of the Sami who left reindeer husbandry to become settlers and how assimilation among other things influenced their identity and their health.
– They wind up in a cultural borderland where some abandon their Sami identity. In another project I will be looking at what it was, and is, like to grow old as a Sami. Eldercare has changed considerably, probably for the worse for many old people, since Swedish society has difficulty in providing care that allows them to feel at home both culturally and linguistically.
Peter takes the opportunity to lay to rest the myth of the “suicide cliff”, the high cliff off which, in Swedish folklore, old people threw themselves, or were thrown, to their deaths to avoid being a burden to their families.
– It is and will remain a baseless myth.
More about Peter Sköld
Favourite food: Classic Swedish home cooking
Likes to read: Peter Robinson or the “Detective Twins” series of books
Likes to listen to: A far too large collection of vinyl records
Leisure: Learning to jive
Date of birth: 1961