The Drum Who Came Home
The Sámi drum is a non-human person
To the Sámi people of northern Norway, their ritual drums are not simply cultural artefacts. They are “powerful non-human beings.” So the very first repatriation of a drum back to Sámi territory, after being taken exactly 330 years ago by Danish authorities, is a big deal. It happened in January 2022. In July, I saw this drum on display at the Sámi museum in Karasjok, not far from the Sámi Parliament. The drum rests in a spotlit glass case in its own separate, darkened room. It is the only item in the whole museum that visitors are not allowed to photograph.
The story of this drum — its biography — is told in vivid detail in the adjoining room, together with an explanation of the instrumental role drums played in traditional Sámi culture. Here’s what the museum has to say about the process of repatriation:
Drums were considered “powerful non-human beings with their own will and voice.” They played a crucial role in the lives of the Sámi: foretelling weather, the movement of reindeer herds, the best times to hunt, how to heal sicknesses and help women in childbirth. Noidi (shaman) could play their drums to induce a trance state and travel to the spirit world, where they could gather wisdom or intercede for those in need.
In trying to grasp the multifaceted role of the drum in the context of my own culture, the closest I could get was a Smart Phone — that is, if we believed Siri or Alexa or Hey Google were sentient beings we communicated with that connected us to some vast ether-like “cloud” of information.
I’m saying this as a joke, of course. But I do believe it’s possible the Sámi used their drums to tap into sources of information that reductionist Western science can’t yet fathom, just as we don’t grasp how salmon return to the stream in which they were spawned, or how some animals seem to sense an earthquake hours before it happens. Evolutionary scientists are discovering that even at the molecular level of DNA, there seems to be a level of perception, connection and communication we have yet to understand (read Spheres of Perception for more on this). So, I try to keep an open mind about ways of knowing that are beyond my own horizons.
Here’s how the Karasjok Museum explains how the Sámi used their drums:
Anders Poulsen, mentioned in the last paragraph of the museum text above, was the Sámi noidi who owned the drum that has returned. The museum also tells his story.
In 1692 Anders Poulsen was charged with the crime of witchcraft — specifically for possessing and using a drum. This was at the end of a century that saw 91 women and men tried and executed for witchcraft in the northeastern town of Vardø. Most were burned at the stake. (The Salem Witch Trials that killed 25 people in Massachusetts also took place in this time period).
Poulsen declared he was 100 years old during his trial. He freely admitted he used the drum, and gave detailed testimony as to the meanings of all the symbols it contained. He also explained how he used the drum only for good — to advise, protect and heal those who came to him for help. For this, the court sentenced him to death. But the judge delayed the ruling, waiting for the authorities in Denmark (the rulers of Norway at the time) to weigh in. Poulsen’s relatives pleaded for mercy, urging again and again that the old man never did any harm. Poulsen was murdered in his cell the day after the trial by the sheriff’s deputy. Historical accounts call that deputy “deranged.” To me, he seemed incentivized.
Poulsen’s drum was taken to Denmark and added to the private collection of the king, who apparently would beat on it for amusement from time to time. It ended up in the Danish National Museum. In 1972 it was sent, on loan, to the museum in Karasjok. Only in 2022 — due to efforts of the Danish royal family — was it finally repatriated to the Sámi people.
Poulsen’s story is just one tragic example of the centuries-long campaign to destroy Sámi culture and religion. The Sámi were in fact that last people in Europe to be “Christianized.” Their drums were taken away. Many drums were burned and destroyed as tools of the devil. Others were sent to museums throughout Scandinavia and the world. Altogether, of the seventy or so thought to be in existence today, Poulsen’s is the only drum that has come home.
Progress is being made, but there’s a long way to go. Norway is a signatory of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Like Canada and the US, Norwegians are still trying to come to terms with the brutal treatment of their indigenous people — policies once labelled “Norwegianization.” In 1997, King Harald V of Norway publicly apologized to the Sami people for the repression they suffered under Norwegian rule.
The Sámi in Norway now have their own democratically elected parliament. It’s a governing body for their own cultural affairs, and can also make “suggestions” to Norway’s central government. The Sámi aim, however, is to gain actual veto rights on legislation that directly affects them. That does not seem too much to ask. A Sámi man told me his people know they have better representation in Norway than their kin do in Sweden or Finland. And that all of them are much better off than the Sámi living in northwestern Russia.
The Norwegian government recently promised to return some 2,000 Sámi items held in Norwegian museums to Karasjok. And four other drums are in the process of being returned from other museums in Northern Europe.
One of the Karasjok museum staff told me their director was currently visiting the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., supervising the 3-D scanning of Sámi artifacts the museum had acquired — including two drums. This process allows for 3-D printing of replicas, and it can be an important step in the eventual return of “taken” articles to their rightful Sámi homeland. It’s more than returning stolen possessions. It’s returning stolen heritage, stolen parts of themselves — some of whom are drums.