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Return of a Sámi Drum

Picture shows the Gunnerus-trommen, a Sami Drum.

Picture shows the Gunnerus-trommen, an example of a Sámi Drum similar to the Sámi Drum discussed below. Runebomme [Sámi Drum]. Photo by Åge Hojem, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet in collaboration with Halldis Nergaard, Adresseavisa (via Flickr) (May 12, 2015). Used under creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Sunday, February 6, marks the Sámi National Day. The Sámi people are indigenous to Sápmi, an area that spans across northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The holiday inspired me to write a post about the recent return of a Sámi Drum to Norway.

Last month, the Danish government transferred the legal ownership of a Sámi drum from the National Museum in Denmark to the Sámi museum (Riddo Duottar Museat) in Karasjok, Norway, where it has been on display as part of the Sámi collection since 1979.

Religious Use

Known as Goavddis, Samisk tromme, or runebomme, the Sámi drums were made of reindeer skin on top of a wooden base and used by a Noaidi (spiritual leader similar to a shaman) to enter into trances, to travel to other places, including the realm of the dead, or to visit gods. The drawings on top of the reindeer skin symbolized the world the Sámi lived in, and by placing a plumb on drum, the noaidi could follow its movements to predict the future.

The use of Sámi drums was classified as witchcraft and criminalized, punishable by death, by the Danish King Christian IV in a 1609 proclamation, at a time when Norway was part of the Kingdom of Denmark. While the crime of witchcraft was not only limited to Sámi practices, Finnmark, home to a large Sámi population, was the region in Norway that saw the most witch trials.

Anders Poulsen’s Drum

The specific drum, now returned to Sápmi, was originally owned by noaidi Anders Poulsen. February 9 marks 330 years since Poulsen was prosecuted for witchcraft in 1692 before the Vadsø Court. During the proceedings, he played his drum, explaining its use, including how he could ease the pain of women in labor, find stolen property, and expel dark forces using the drum. He never received a conviction (or final judgement), however, as he was killed by a jailor on February 11, 1692, while awaiting the final verdict in custody. His became the final witch trial in Finnmark. A memorial now stands in Vardø, in remembrance of the 91 people who were convicted of witchcraft in Finnmark. While a majority of those convicted of witchcraft were women, 13 out of the 14 convicted men were Sámi. Their Sámi drums were either confiscated by the authorities, like Anders Poulsen’s, or destroyed.

Sámi Drums in International Collections

There are currently 71 known preserved Sámi drums that form part of museum holdings in Sápmi, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and also throughout Europe. Outside of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, the largest holdings are found in Denmark, Germany, and Holland. There are also several previously documented drums currently unaccounted for. The more modern drums also include Christian symbols. Today, the Sámi drum remains an important symbol for the Sámi, and while it is not commonly used to enter into a trance, it is often used in cultural or political settings.

The Return Process

The return of the Sámi drum was a long process. Originally the Sámi drum was on loan from the Danish National Museum, but the loan agreement lapsed on December 1, 2021. Sámi representatives have therefore worked to have the legal ownership of the drum transferred, including by contacting the Danish Queen to facilitate a return of ownership. Similar to the Norwegian King, she has not publicly commented on the legal status of the drum, but left it to the Danish government.

The Danish Museum Act stipulates that the Danish Ministry of Culture may permit state-owned museums to remove items from its holdings. (11 § para. 2 Museumsloven). The Danish Ministry of Culture on January 24, 2022, announced its permission to transfer the drum. As specified in the announcement, the Danish Ministry of Culture typically does not permit transfers to foreign museums, but made an exception as the drum had been in the physical custody of the Norwegian museum for more than 40 years and originated from that area. Danish representatives have previously worked together with Greenlandic representatives to return historically important museum holdings to Greenland.

Additional Resources

English language titles pertaining to the Sámi Drum available in the Library of Congress collection:

Online resources:

Law Library of Congress, Protection of Indigenous Heritage in Selected Jurisdictions (2019). (Includes Norway.)

You may also enjoy these In Custodia Legis posts about witchcraft and witch trials:

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