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

Erik Hieta


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.


Indigenous; ethnographic representation; cultural preservation; modernization

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ISSN: 0044-8060
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