International law recognises the rights of Peoples to govern their own members, territory and resources. This right is implemented through independence of former colonies such as Iceland; self-government in multi-jurisdictional States such as in Greenland; and varying degrees of internal autonomy for Indigenous Peoples such as in Sápmi (the homeland of Saami) and Inuit Nunaat (the homeland of Inuit). However, some States have been reluctant to transfer control over archives to the Peoples about whom they pertain.

Yet, without control over their own historic records, Peoples cannot truly enjoy self-determination – or, in other words, decolonise. The party which controls the archives determines which documents are retained and which destroyed as well as how they are organised, who may access them and on what terms. This exercise of power has very personal impacts on individuals seeking information about their own lives – such as birth, adoption, marriage and health records or school records. These are necessary not only to give a person a fuller picture of their past but also to bring claims for paternity or inheritance; compensation for abuses committed by colonial boarding schools and health authorities; and land claims.

At a collective level, the archival record provides evidence of the pre-colonisation presence of a People on its land; the continuity of its occupation; and its traditional legal system. These are essential to a People’s claims for self-determination in international law. Control over the archive also enables a People to construct history from their own point of view, allows them to connect to its own cultural heritage and establish and reinforce its national identity – sometimes called “historiographic sovereignty”.

To discuss these issues and seek out pathways to resolve archival claims across colonial and post-colonial Nordic countries, twenty experts and scholars met at the Icelandic National Archives in Reykjavík and online on 26th and 27th March 2023 to hold an exploratory workshop on the topic of Decolonising Nordic Archives. The group included practising archivists and archival theorists, historians and legal scholars from across the Nordic countries and Canada. They considered some of the special features of shared, displaced or migrated archives in the Arctic. For example, some archives were transferred from the place of origin to the administrative centre of the coloniser; in other cases, the archive may not have been itself physically moved but rather the People has been displaced, often forcibly. State borders have also moved around archives and the Peoples concerned and in other cases, archives are displaced “judicially” – i.e., it is still in the land of the colonised but under the exclusive authority of the colonising government thousands of kilometres away. The group looked at examples of ongoing claims as well as those that have been resolved for insights. The researchers explored Indigenous archival practices, in particular from Inuit and Saami perspectives, and how these differ from colonial systems of categorization. The group contemplated the potential of the international law of decolonization, the rights of Indigenous Peoples and rights to cultural heritage to resolve disputes over archives. And they also examined technological solutions and their limits, such as the use of artificial intelligence to transcribe and catalogue original Indigenous records and digitalisation of archives to facilitate shared access.

A follow-up workshop and seminar is planned in Copenhagen in March 2024.

For more information, contact the project leader, Professor Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Akureyri,

The workshop was funded by the Joint Committee for Nordic Research Councils in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NOS-HS) (Nordforsk).

See also: Decolonising Nordic Archives