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Rebellion 1852

The Kautokeino Rebellion 1852

By Roald E. Kristiansen, University of Tromsø

Tr. Kari Lie, Christina Espey-Sundt, Daniel Lohmann, Ebru D. Yayla, and Anders-Preben Bay

Background and chain of events

The expression “the Kautokeino rebellion” is used to describe the event that took place Monday November 8th, 1852. A group of Sami rebelled against the non-Sami residents of Kautokeino including merchant Carl Johan Ruth, District Sheriff Lars Lohan Bucht, and the newly arrived pastor, Fredrik W. Hvoslef. Ruth and Bucht were killed, but the pastor and his family were whipped (with the exception of his pregnant wife). The merchant’s house was burned to the ground.

The rebels consisted of one group of approximately 35 Sami who had joined forces to become a large siida, led by Mons Somby (27 years old) and Aslak Hætta (28 years old). Together with Ellen Skum (25), Lars Hætta (18), and Henrik Skum (20), they were sentenced to death in the trial following the event, but the latter 3 were later pardoned and received life sentences of hard labor alongside 8 other people (4 men and 4 women). Another 15 people were sentenced to jail for varying lengths from a few days up to 12 years. Three people died before or during the trial and 4 were acquitted.

In short, the chain of events was as follows: during the morning of November 8th the members of the siida left for the Kautokeino church grounds where they attacked and killed the merchant and sheriff and beat the pastor and several others for forcing them to convert and join their faith. After a hard battle, the rebels were overpowered by other Sami and later taken to Alta.

The reasons for the rebellion are complicated and involve several circumstances. The rebels were motivated to act because of their religious convictions. They were originally inspired by Læstadian Christianity, but they had their own convictions, which were quite different from the beliefs that Lars Levi Læstadius himself stood for. They considered themselves as ‘holy’ people without sin who acted on God’s behalf towards unrepentant and sinful people. In their statements they characterized themselves as “God” or as “God’s son.”

It was not only they as a group who were strongly affected by the Læstadian faith. The other Sami in Kautokeino were also influenced by this Læstadian awakening; however, most believed that the Somby/Hætta group had gone way too far in their interpretations of the faith. The religious revival operated with a clear image of the devil. Leading the oppression of the Sami people were the national peoples’ representatives with the authorities in the lead. In Kautokeino, this was primarily the merchant who sold liquor in such a way that both individuals and the society as a whole were harmed. The newly appointed sheriff acted in such a violent way that it provoked strong reactions in the local community. He also had a bad reputation since he had been fired as a sheriff in Øvre Torneå, Sweden, because of embezzlement and had fled to Kautokeino to escape punishment.

The service offered by the church in Kautokeino had been insufficient for several decades, with only short, sporadic visits from the pastor. When the bishop sent N.V. Stockfleth to Kautokeino during the critical period right before the rebellion, Stockfleth behaved in such a manner that posterity has characterized as exceedingly unwise. This certainly helped provoke additional negative reactions.

Last, but not least, in order to understand the background of the uprising, one has to keep in mind the incident that took place during the confirmation in Skjervøy church the previous summer. It led to arrests and sentences in February 1852 where 22 charged were sentenced. All of the sentenced were also held financially responsible for the trial, which led to financial ruin for several people. The financial situations for the reindeer Sami were further deteriorated when the border between Norway and Finland/Russia was closed September 15, 1852. This prevented Norwegian reindeer Sami from moving their reindeer to the winter grazing lands they had used for generations on the Finnish side. The closing of the border led to great uncertainty in the reindeer-herding milieu as to how they could apportion the areas where reindeer could graze during the winter, and to some extent they expected significant problems of readjustment.  Accordingly, in the background of the rebellion there is a very complex relationship among several important factors including many different circumstances. The most important factors can be shown in the following chart:

Social situation

Legal situation

Religious situation

Liquor sales created great social problems

Economic uncertainty for those sentenced in the Skjervøy case

Radical, pietistic demands for change of heart and new way of living

Inciting behavior by representatives of the authorities

Uncertain future about the availability of the winter grazing lands in Finland

Apocalyptic expectations and individual revelations

The Kautokeino rebellion and the religious overtones that lay behind the event represent a rather unique event in the Scandinavian context.  Add to that the fact that the Sami very rarely resorted to physical violence in their relations with the national authority. At this point in time The national state’s representatives regarded, , the Sami as a small and insignificant group of people who were living on the heritage from a past that would soon die out as the modern times were changing people’s lives and their basis for this life. They were therefore not prepared for any resistance or rebellion from this little people on the edge of civilization. The reactions to the rebellion and the harsh sentences then have to be seen from a similar perspective; they were meant as a threat to prevent any future tendencies toward rebellion against the authorities and the existing social order.

What is unique about the events has also helped bring great attention to the uprising in posterity and it has been studied and analyzed in many different ways. If we examine the various explanations we can categorize them according to the different explanatory models:

Personal explanations

Medical explanations

Religious explanations

Social explanations

Individual personality traits: individual hate and revenge

Personal psychological ailments and/or ethnically determined differences

Spiritual delusions: an honestly experienced, but incorrect Christian faith

Social and economic oppression and exploitation

Hvoslef (1857)
Figenschou (1952)

Tromholt (1885)
Pausett (1944)
Steen (1965)

Englund (1875)
Heggtveit (1912-20)
Hasselberg (1935)
Sivertsen (1955)

Gjessing (1953)
Otnes (1970)
Bjørklund (1992)
Zorgdrager (1997)

The older interpretations of the rebellion and its causes have tended to view the incident as a relatively isolated, one-time phenomenon, and one rarely finds any reference to social or economic circumstances. The pastor Hvoslef, who himself was a victim of the rebels’ wrath, wrote an analysis of the events in 1857 where he lays most of the blame on Aslak Hætta (Hvoslef earlier had explained his view that is obvious in two letters to bishop Juell in Tromsø, dated December 14, 1852 and January 5, 1853 respectively). In his opinion, a religious explanation was not sufficient, because the rebels showed a clear “calculating” attitude and had therefore not acted in religious anger. His conclusion was that the rebellion was caused “at its deepest reason by hate and revenge, which could not be satisfied without murder” (quoted in Zorgdrager 1997, 375).  This was especially the case for Aslak Hætta. The rest of the group had mostly let themselves be led by his hate and revenge primarily directed towards the sheriff and the merchant, because it was these two who had been responsible for their arrest and sentence in court earlier that year in connection with the Skjervøy case. The reasons for the rebellion lay therefore with the leaders alone.

More than 100 years later, magistrate E. Figenschou (1952), grandson of the merchant Ruth, wrote an article in which he sees the rebellion as a result of the leader’s desire for revenge after the earlier judgment in the Skjervøy case.  Figenschou claims that this judgment was illegitimate because it was based on an excessively broad interpretation of the law, thus they should not have been punished at all.  Aslak Hætta and the others had therefore every reason to feel indignant about the ruling, even if they went too far in their personal retaliation.  He sees what happened as the result of the mountain Samis’ mind and character that had been formed through “poor schooling and education, deficient social orientation, impulsive temperament, and uncritical susceptibility to emotional nature” (1952, 573).

Sophus Tromholt (1885), a Danish scientist who lived in Kautokeino during the winter of 1882-83 to observe the northern lights, asserted that the rebellion was carried out by deranged people on the basis of his investigations into the records of the interrogation, available literature, and conversations with Sami in Kautokeino.  The same conclusion was made by A.P. Pausett (1944).  Adolf Steen (1964) went even further in his analysis of the rebellion trying to show that the rebellious Sami should not have been found guilty because they should have been considered as mentally incompetent.  He supports his theory with his research on the medical records of the descendants of the Sami involved in the rebellion.
The religious motives for the rebels’ actions, of course, prompted questions of what connection there was between religion and the events of November 8th. As mentioned, Hvoslef did not attach much weight to the religious motives, and instead focused on the rebels’ hatred of the authority figures. Theologian J.A. Englund (1875), however, turned attention to the fact that the Kautokeino Sami early on became followers of Læstadius’ preaching, but he thought that the cause of the rebellion was not to be found in Læstadianism, but in the rebels’ poor knowledge of Christian faith and doctrine because the ecclesiastical staff in the parish had been extremely poor for such a long time. The blame for the rebellion therefore in the final analysis had to be placed on the Norwegian authorities who had not understood the significance of general and religious training in faith and moral conduct. In addition, some have pointed to the censurable behavior of parish pastor Stockfleth (even Bishop Juell had to reprimand Stockfleth for some of his decisions and actions). Most other theologians and church historians who have expressed their thoughts about the rebellion (Heggtveit (1912-1920), C. Edquist (1916), M. Edquist (1922), Hasselberg (1935), and Sivertsen (1955)) have tried to explain the events as an outburst of “religious despair” and a lack of understanding of the true religious content of Læstadianism – and most often in combination with negative personality traits of the rebels.

When it comes to the Supreme Court’s judgment of the events, one emphasizes that the rebels had shown serious feelings of hate and lust for vengeance that the lower class presumably felt for the civilized world. They gave examples of similar disturbances that had taken place elsewhere, and saw the rebellion as an attempt to usurp rights and undermine public peace and order which could not be tolerated in the name of civilization. They were not interested in the underlying motives and possible conflicts within the Sami community, but they concentrated in passing judgment in such a manner that it would have a deterring effect on possible new uprisings.

It was not until the 1950s that people began to become interested in other possible reasons for the rebellion rather than only the Samis’ mental conditions or religiosity. Gjessing (1953) claimed in an article, which refuted Figenschou’s view, that it was the sale of liquor and alcohol abuse that were at the core of the tragedy, and furthermore attached great importance to the imprudent way pastor Stockfleth had acted as a trigger for the rebellion: Læstadian influence was of secondary nature, he thought. Rather it was the government’s representatives who had made themselves rich through many years of liquor sales, while the Sami people were ruined both financially and morally. A basic conflict of interest thereby arose between the Sami and the local authority, and when this conflict reached a high point through the actions of a rash pastor, the stubborn sheriff, and a problematic merchant, it led to the violent explosion.

With the ‘socialist awakening’ of the 1960s and 70s there was a further strengthening of the social and economic motives as a background for the rebellion. The sociologist Otnes (1970), and later the theologian Borch (1975) and the historian Pryser (1982), viewed the rebellion as a social protest against a rigid judicial system and an unscrupulous lust for profits earned by the Norwegian outsiders. Otnes argues that the rebels were right in that their case was just and criticizes them only for being such poor strategists that they used the religion as the ideology of protest and did not go directly to the core and protest against the unjust structures that prevailed in society. He considers the Læstadian movement among the Sami as a precursor of political awakening and organizing.

This sort of viewpoint of the rebellion continued into the 1980s through a focus on an understanding of Sami identity. Bjørklund (1985 and 1992) sees the Læstadian movement as a religious opposition movement against the economic and cultural pressures of the time.  And in the ideology that characterized the rebels’ theology, he sees a millennial movement attempting to establish a just society of the Sami and for the Sami that directly challenged Norwegian state ideology.  It was this challenge to the Norwegian cultural hegemony that led the state to react as strongly as it did in the subsequent legal proceedings.

In the latest scrutiny into the Kautokeino rebellion, Nellejet Zorgdrager is attempts to develop a more holistic perspective.  She claims that the events can be studied on the following different analytical levels (434):

  • The rebellion itself
  • The movement in Kautokeino
  • The Læstadian movement among the Sami and Kvens in general

She is of the opinion that the rebellion itself was a consequence of the development that was begun by the reports and legal processes that the parish pastors Qvale in Skjervøy and Stockfleth initiated.  The reports stigmatized a small group of the converted Sami in Kautokeino and hung them out as heretics and disturbers of the peace who should be harshly punished.  The stigmatization and harsh sentences led to a clear radicalization of the movement and increased their frustration with Norwegian society in general.

The movement in Kautokeino, so to speak, affected all the Sami.  Zorgdrager asserts that the Sami’s claim that they were pure and holy must be considered as a result of the conception of reality that reflected the situation the people had long hoped for.  With their Læstadian conviction, they were ready to show the greater society who they really wanted to be.  At the same time, it was also a resistance against Norwegian society’s colonial attitudes and the low status the Sami had been granted by the authorities.  The Sami’s identification with God itself showed that their norms and values were above what Norwegian society and even the church represented.  Their faith was therefore a just faith.  The emergence of a large siida became a sign of the solidarity and unity where each one could mutually strengthen the other in faith and of being right, not the least since the authorities punished them harshly and unjustly which is what happened in connection with the Skjervøy case.  Zorgdrager also points out that there was a certain continuity between the Læstadian awakening and previous religious revivals from the 1770’s (Wiklund Awakening and Roper Movement).

The Læstadian awakening led to a strong intensification of the spiritual life among the converted in Kautokeino.  Visions and dreams played a large role and it meant that individual experiences and fantasies were construed as so important and real that they acquired a collective meaning.  Therefore, Zorgdrager claims that the “’fantasy’ of a better and more just world where evil had been driven out and the just reigned on earth, became a collective ‘fantasy’” (436).  By focusing on the acknowledgement of sin and repentance, the movement stigmatized the outsiders – primarily the Norwegian representatives of church and government – who prevented people from living a harmonious, virtuous and godly life.  Thus, the faithful could work off their frustrations on an external enemy who exploited them and looked down on them.  Since Læstadius himself strongly criticized the prevailing conditions and reproached the church for its passive attitudes, he also gave the Sami and the Kvens the means to express their dissatisfaction with the existing situation and to attempt to establish an alternative equality pattern.  For the Norwegian society, the existing inequality pattern was the actual tool for a hegemony of power.  The reindeer Sami had no influence over questions about border regulations and grazing restrictions; it was something decided by the Norwegian authorities–and, as a rule, not in the reindeer herding Sami’s favor.  The frustration at being shut out from real influence undoubtedly affected the strong radicalization of the religious movement and thereby caused its final form of revolutionary expression.  In Sweden and Finland, where the movement gained a stronger foothold in the church, it assumed more of a reformist character so as in that way to avoid the excesses such as were found in Kautokeino on November 8, 1852

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz sees religion as an identity-shaping and integrating factor in society and culture by connecting ethics and way of living with worldview and understanding of reality.  Religion has a basic culture-bearing and morality-justifying function that provides identity and integration through perspectives of meaning that counteract chaos and disorder.

The sociologist Peter Berger sees religion as an integrating and identity-shaping theory system on a level with other systems of meaning such as philosophy, science and ideology.  Since our cultural constructions and social systems are chronically unstable, they are steadily threatened by chaos and meaninglessness.  The need for meaning and identity is therefore strong, not least in situations where people are confronted with life’s marginal situations, especially death.  When religion is so effective as a legitimizing and identity-assuring system, it is because by referring to “the utmost reality” it provides stability to unstable social constructions.  Changing existence is given meaning in light of higher conceptions of time and history.  Religion thus legitimizes social structures and cultural constructions by anchoring in a higher form of reality.

One can see how such an understanding of the significance of religion in the community sheds light on the events that took place in Kautokeino on that fatal November day in 1852. The Sami community found themselves in a marginalized situation where chaos and disintegration loomed in the air. The rulings against the Kautokeino-Sami in the Skjervøy case threatened their livelihood through the large fines that were imposed on them by the court. Border regulations created uncertainty about the possibility of continued reindeer herding in the parish, and the business activity in Kautokeino was characterized by a system where one received little or nothing for what one produced or gathered for sale. In addition, the trade of liquor and the socially accepted norms around the serving of alcohol represented a serious threat to the individual and their families, and many were in danger of succumbing to poverty and humiliation. Not even the local sheriff could be trusted, as he had “disgraced himself” through his earlier involvement in Swedish Lapland. Nor did the church prioritize the Kautokeino community, with pastors only visiting for a short period around Christmas.

The only bright spot at the time was the rumors from Karesuando, Sweden, that circulated about the local pastor rebelling against injustice and calling for unity among the society’s poor against the domination of outsiders. Yet there was a great distance between Kautokeino and Karesuando, and one knew little about the foundation Læstadius had brought about there. In Kautokeino, one therefore had to act for one’s self, and over time the actions of the people were to a greater degree characterized by the chaotic state the society found itself in.   Thus there were not many culturally or morally grounded functions in Kautokeino that religion would come to influence, and attention was turned towards ideas of upheaval and change at a local level. There arose amongst the inner circles recognition of an integrated identity, with clear frontiers against ‘the others’. These fronts were strengthened further by the movement’s taking on a millennial character with weight on the “new order” where the old system had to quickly and effectively be ‘swept away’, as it hindered the establishment of a new system. Religion thus affected a ‘cultural revolution’ that renounced any legitimacy for the existing system and social structures.  Due to the general level of crisis, religion came to play a central role as a motivational factor for social change, and not as motivation for stability, continuity and tradition.

Since the uprising was so quickly suppressed and the driving forces behind the rebellion were neutralized, there were few positive effects. Instead the state hardened its grip on the Sami community, and it can perhaps be claimed that the growing ‘Norwegianization’ policies of the second half of the 19th century are connected to the Kautokeino uprising as the way the greater society sought to guard itself against similar uprisings in the future.

In 1852, the Norwegian society’s authorities were primarily interested in maintaining law and order. From a religious viewpoint, one was at the same time in a very unstable situation in that the ordinance governing religious assembly had recently been annulled and new parties and groups arose in many places. The effects of this liberal shift on wider society became easily apparent, especially considering the church’s primary role as an important tool for maintaining stability, order, and peace. Thus when religion was found to be a contributory factor for the uprising, it was a threat to the whole order of society. It was for this reason that the reaction was so strong in comparison to the Skjervøy case the previous year, and that religion came to receive a central position as a rallying point for the fight against injustice.  In other words, it was no coincidence that the Kautokeino uprising was a religious movement with strong social and political overtones. The severity of the uprising reflects the chaotic situation in which the Sami community found itself, and the desperation felt for an uncertain and unsafe future.  The most tragic consequences unfolded through the Norwegian society’s hard-handed dealing with the participants of the uprising, and the consequent process of ‘Norwegianization,’ which sought to eliminate their ethnic affiliation through linguistic assimilation.


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