Mission Before Colonisation: A Reassessment of Religious Contact in Greenland and Sápmi, 1000-1550.

Contact between Arctic and Fennoscandic peoples and Christian settlers and traders had occurred several centuries before missionaries became agents of European expansionism. Early contact between the different groups is nevertheless primarily and inevitably interpreted as the beginnings of colonial domination, and rarely as part of a political and religious strategy consciously adopted by Indigenous peoples and analogous to, for example, the Christianisation of Scandinavian kings or the Scandinavian elite. Such an interpretation can be regarded as a projection of later early modern and modern perspectives of accomplished colonisation and structures of power whereby the Indigenous populations are exclusively treated as the strange, powerless and ‘heathen’ Other. As a consequence of this projection, a form of preordained European dominance and superiority is assumed, even at the time of the earliest encounters. It is significant to note that the interpretation of conversion to Christianity as a form of active cultural appropriation is not meant to minimise the destructive and often fatal effects that contact with the European majority religion had on Indigenous societies. Rather, the project highlights the importance of recognising that early contacts with Christianity and the familiarisation and adoption of a new belief system (including fragments of it) may have been the result of a variety of motives, including active Indigenous agency. The aim of the project is therefore to conduct a re-reading of the available written and material sources dating from 1000 to 1550 with the goal of writing a non-lachrymose history of religious contact in Greenland and Sápmi, while avoiding any apologetic descriptions of Northern colonialism as a “kinder” form of domination and exploitation. This will be achieved through a deconstruction of current historiography and a re-evaluation of the archaeological material, jointly anchored in postcolonial research methodologies as a theoretical and ethical backdrop. Through such an approach, more neutral narratives of conversion, as well as Indigenous narratives of agency and power, come into play.

Mission before colonisation is led by Professor Dr. Cordelia Heß (University of Greifswald), and the team consists of research assistant Dr. Solveig Marie Wang (University of Greifswald), a PhD candidate, as well as advisor of Arctic archaeology Dr. Christian Koch Madsen (Greenland National Museum and Archives). The project is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) and will be conducted over a three-year period (01.01.2020-31.12.2023).