“Awakening the Racial Spirit”: Indians, Sámi, and the Politics of Ethnographic Representation, 1930s–1940s

  • Erik Hieta Independent scholar
Keywords: Indigenous, ethnographic representation, cultural preservation, modernization


The article focuses on the efforts by scholars and activists in the 1930s–1940s to reinvigorate discussions of cultural preservation for indigenous peoples at the transnational level. It focuses in particular on the correspondence between, and overlap in, the efforts of ethnographers in the United States and Finland to secure homelands for the indigenous Sámi and American Indians as the cornerstone of cultural preservation efforts. The title, “awakening the racial spirit,” a term used by U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier (1934–1945), highlights the extent to which ethnographic representations of the time built on racialized and stereotyped images from the past to project onto indigenous peoples a distinctive future. Increasingly, both Sámi and American Indians engaged with and disrupted such representations. The impacts of the efforts to document and demarcate a distinctive indigenous past continue to underpin and inform indigenous rights discussions to this day.

Author Biography

Erik Hieta, Independent scholar
Erik Hieta, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, completed an undergraduate degree in history at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in history at the University of California, Davis, with a designated emphasis in Native American Studies. With his grandparents being from Finland, he took advantage of an opportunity to conduct academic research in Finland while on a Fulbright scholarship. His research interests include immigration, decolonization, and changing transnational ethnic and indigenous identities. He currently lives and works in Finland. He can be reached at erik.hieta@gmail.com.