Ethical Guidelines

Ethical Guidelines


About the ethical guidelines

These guidelines feature some of the common notions brought up in different ethical guidelines drafted by Indigenous Peoples internationally. The guidelines are directed for non-Sámi users of the search service. Common contexts for the use of cultural heritage include, for example, tourism, research and archiving. However, other users are also invited to acquaint themselves with the guidelines. The guidelines are presented to guide the user in engaging in the culturally responsive use of Sámi archival materials. However, the user should be aware that ultimately, each community and context of use is unique. The recommended best practices will need to be interpreted contextually.

Why do we have ethical guidelines?

Several Indigenous Peoples around the world have drafted ethical guidelines for the use of their cultural heritage materials. There have been cases where, for example, cultural heritage materials have been used in commercial contexts without the Indigenous Peoples’ accord. The use of the cultural heritage of Indigenous Peoples in tourism has also been considered problematic as, it is often based on misrepresentation. The common view is that legislation, such as copyright law, does not sufficiently protect expressions of cultural heritage against abuse. The ethical guidelines featured in this search service have been created in order to inform the respectful use of the materials and to provide the necessary context regarding the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

What is cultural heritage?

Cultural heritage is an important element of identity for both communities and individuals. Indigenous cultural heritage includes both tangible and intangible creations maintained by an Indigenous People or Indigenous individuals. These include, for example, the practices, representations and expressions – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts, sites and cultural spaces – that Indigenous Peoples and individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage. It further includes the knowledge that is the result of intellectual activity and insight in a traditional context, including know-how, skills and innovations.1 Cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is a living whole: it is constantly recreated. Therefore, cultural heritage includes both contemporary and historical creations.

Ethical guidelines

General principles regarding the use of the search service

The objective of these guidelines is to inform the use of archival materials with a perspective of reciprocal respect and a respectful engagement across the majority society and Indigenous worldviews.

The basis of these guidelines is to offer an invitation to recognise the diversity of social meanings embodied in archival materials and the knowledge models that interpret them.

The guidelines are given with the view of the common interest in gaining and guiding an understanding of the past embodied in materials of memory and cultural traditions.

Insofar as Indigenous cultures and philosophies are embodied and lived through oral traditions, artwork and other forms of collective expression, the continuity, growth and revival of Indigenous communities are dependent on Indigenous Peoples’ control and ownership of these cultural expressions of identity.

Differences between knowledge systems

The user of the search service is invited to acknowledge that there are differing frameworks for understanding concepts such as history, cultural identity, values, property or the best ways to preserve cultural heritage. However, the views of Indigenous communities have been unacknowledged for a long time or have even been under active erasure due to the history of colonisation. The user should conduct their use and handling of the materials with a view of reciprocal respect and respectful engagement across majority society and Indigenous worldviews.

For example, Western notions of individual freedom and access to materials can be in conflict with the notion that Indigenous cultural heritage can be owned collectively, therefore access to some knowledge may be considered a privilege rather than a right. In addition, the way in which the materials are arranged and presented may have special cultural significance to the Indigenous communities. For instance, some collections may need to be kept together based on their content, rather than segregated by their format, as often occurs in archival facilities.

Building relationships to ensure the respectful use of archival materials

When using the materials, it should be noted that meaningful consultation and concurrence are essential for establishing mutually beneficial practices and trust. Common beneficial solutions can be detected through dialogue and cooperation. Therefore, the user is encouraged to seek opportunities for consultation with the Sámi community. It might also be necessary to contact the cultural centres or archives related to the matter at hand.

Building relationships of reciprocal trust and respect has also been considered to include informing Indigenous communities about collections of relevant materials. For this reason, when the search service was being developed, the questionnaire was sent to multiple memory organisations in order to find the whereabouts of archival materials related to Sámi cultural heritage. The results of the survey are now featured in the search service.

Consideration of intellectual property rights, use and access

The user of these archive materials should be aware that different intellectual property rights, such as copyright and related rights, may cover the materials. It should also be noted that intellectual property laws do not always cover the use of cultural heritage materials in accordance with the views of Indigenous Peoples. State-oriented intellectual property rights are built on individual ownership, which is an inappropriate legal structure through which to defend Indigenous collective rights to traditional cultural expression and Indigenous knowledge.

In addition, the conditions under which cultural heritage materials can be ethically and legally acquired, accessed or otherwise used change through time. Some materials may have been collected or later restricted in ways which are now seen as being in contrast with community rights and laws.

Indigenous Peoples’ ownership over cultural heritage

According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development” (UNDRIP, article 3). In exercising their right to live as Indigenous Peoples, Sámi must be recognised as the owners of their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and intellectual property. In this regard, the legal framework is often insufficient. Legally it is often the case that Indigenous cultural heritage materials belong to the public domain without the Indigenous groups’ accord. Moreover, the intellectual property rights might belong to someone who does not represent the Indigenous culture. With a view of these type of issues with the legal framework, the use of Indigenous cultural heritage materials should be conducted in good faith and in cooperation with Indigenous communities.

Culturally sensitive materials

These archive materials may include culturally sensitive materials. The term often refers to material that is not intended to be shared outside the community. Examples, to mention a few, include pictures of human remains, religious or sacred objects, ceremonies, cemeteries or personal or family information. One example of this has been considered to be the Sámi costume, gákti, which is not only a piece of clothing but has great cultural and social significance as well. Use of language in the documents, today considered as racist, is also culturally sensitive. However, the term has also been used in a broader meaning including any material that has special significance for the Indigenous community. This special significance may refer to expressions and practices that are highly meaningful for the preservation of the culture. Considering something ‘culturally sensitive’ might vary in time and can only be defined from within the Indigenous community. It is also possible that different communities will understand the term differently.

Compensation and benefit-sharing

The background of this principle lies in research ethics; however, it also has connections to, for example, commercial activities. What this principle essentially means is that when using Indigenous cultural heritage materials, the benefits of such activities should be shared with the Indigenous community with whom the said materials are associated. In terms of research, this can mean that Indigenous communities should have access to the research results and in this way a possibility to benefit from the research. If the representatives of Sámi cultures are included in the research, it should be considered whether these persons should be acknowledged as co-authors. It should also be considered whether community representatives should be hired for the project if their input is significant.

If cultural heritage materials are used in commercial activities, such as tourism, these activities should also benefit the Indigenous communities on whose heritage the activities are drawn. The use of Sámi cultural heritage in activities other than those deriving from the communities should always be done in good faith and cooperation with the community. This type of activity should never be based on disinformation about Sámi culture.

Derogatory, culturally or otherwise offensive use of cultural heritage materials of Indigenous culture

For centuries, Sámi have struggled with misrepresentation and disinformation concerning their culture. Examples of offensive use are cases such as where a non-Sámi person appears as Sámi by using cultural expressions of Sámi cultural heritage. Similarly, representing cultural expressions without proper contextualisation, for example by connecting them to other cultures in which these expressions do not belong, is offensive and harmful.

One purpose of this search service is to provide accurate information on Sámi culture and therefore to reduce the offensive use of cultural heritage materials. The user of this search service must refrain from using the materials in a derogatory, culturally or otherwise offensive ways. All in all, the cultural heritage materials are of particular importance to Sámi culture and their use should always be carefully considered.

1 See the Review of the draft principles and guidelines on the heritage of Indigenous peoples: Expanded working paper submitted by Yozo Yokota and the Saami Council on the substantive proposals on the draft principles and guidelines on the heritage of Indigenous peoples. United Nations Economic and Social Council. E/CN.4/Sub.2/AC.4/2005/3 21 June 2005. Available: