Aug 10, 2018

Alternative Narratives - Diversity Within the Sami Community

While the Sami, an Arctic people indigenous to Northern Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden, are generally associated with reindeer husbandry and traditional ways of living, the community has historically been much more diverse than has been related in popular depictions and narratives. After achieving remarkable political successes in the course of the 20th century, an increasing number of Sami artists is now promoting a more eclectic image of their society, both in cultural as well as social terms. 

When Sami-Norwegian singer Mari Boine received the prestigious Spellemannpris, i.e. what has been referred to as the Norwegian Grammy Award, in 2017, the Norwegian Sami community could proudly witness yet another public recognition of one of the most famous Sami individuals of our time. It was, in fact, Boine’s fourth Spellemannpris. In 2009, Boine, who is commonly accredited for having revived traditional Sami songs called yoiks by mixing them with elements of Jazz or Rock, was furthermore appointed Knight of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav, and statsstipendiat (i.e. artist with national funding) in 2012. These are among the highest honours the Norwegian state can bestow upon a citizen and considering the – even recent – history of the Sami people, these awards can indeed be considered remarkable.

The Sami are a Finno-Ugric Arctic people indigenous to the Northern territories of today’s Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden (see Figure 1), with the biggest share of the Sami population, i.e. an estimated 60,000 according to the CIA World Factbook, living in Norway, out of the estimated total of 80,000 to 100,000 of Sami individuals. Numbers vary greatly across institutions, but a further 20,0000 to 40,000 are estimated to live in Sweden, approximately 8,000 in Finland and 2,000 in Russia.

Records of early Norse kings marrying Sami women, as well as Nordic mythology, which depicts a multitude of non-human groups living side by side (and sometimes with each other), suggest that originally, relations between the Sami and the Northern Germanic populations of Scandinavia were relatively harmonious, although medieval taxation systems often required border-crossing Sami to pay taxes in multiple countries. The situation deteriorated after the triumph of the Protestant Reformation in Scandinavia. From the 17th and 18th century onwards, the North’s state churches began proselytizing the originally shamanist Sami at an increasing pace and continued their assimilatory efforts until the 20th century. The repercussions of this suppression of Sami identity extend far into today’s more optimistic situation. Some Sami languages have gone extinct (such as the Kainuu variety in Finland, which disappeared already in the 18th century) or are on the brink of extinction (such as the critically endangered Norwegian-Swedish Pite Sami language), either because the assimilation measures of previous centuries have not left enough native speakers to instruct the younger generations in their ancestor’s native language, or because there is still a certain level of shame and secrecy attached to a Sami identity. The 2009 movie Suddenly Sami (‘Min Mors Hemmelighet’) by Norwegian director Ellen-Astri Lundby brought this issue to the attention of a broader public by chronicling the director’s own secret Sami ancestry and the identity struggle that followed when the director’s mother suddenly confessed this circumstance to her adult daughter.

Lundby’s examination of her unexpected Sami identity brings a highly complex issue to the fore: that of how to define Saminess. One the one hand, the Sami are spread across four countries, all of which define Saminess in a (slightly) different way and which grant their Sami population different levels of political representation; unlike their Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish neighbours, the Russian Sami, for example, do not have their own (recognized) parliament. On the other hand, there are many different Sami language variations, which all belong to the Uralic language group and out of which Northern Sami is the biggest variation with an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 speakers spread across Finland, Norway and Sweden. Finally, and as indicated above, the Sami culture is as eclectic as the Sami languages. There are no official numbers indicating the exact size of the Sami population since, as the Statistics bureau of Norway, i.e. the country with the biggest share of the Sami population, states, there is no official registration of people with Sami (or any other ethnic/cultural) identity or background. Instead, the Sami Parliaments and other institutions rely on members self-identifying as Sami, and on those who speak a Sami language or descend from a Sami speaker, for their statistics. Since the Sami had lived in peaceful coexistence with the rest of the Nordic population long before the Church’s missionary initiatives, they are visually rather indistinguishable from the rest of the North’s population. Saminess is thus much more defined through language and as a way of living. Some of the Sami languages are, however, endangered and the ‘Sami way of living’ has also never been as monolithic as it is often portrayed which, as indicated above, makes it rather difficult to define Saminess.

This is not to say that there are no components of Sami culture, which have come to represent this highly diverse group. An ad advertising an 1893/1894 ethnological exposition (i.e. a human zoo) in Hamburg, for example, depicts a small Sami community surrounded by reindeer (see Figure 2). Until this day, reindeer are probably considered the most emblematic symbol of Sami culture. This view is, however, somewhat reductionist, since historically, not all Sami communities were involved with reindeer husbandry, but rather with fishing (such as the Sea or Coastal Sami) or other non-nomadic occupations; in general, Sami communities simply inhabit too large of a territory to have a single culture or language, and the reindeer was never a fixed, universal component of the Sami way of living, since this culture originally consisted of many little communities called siidas. In some cases, reindeer husbandry was even imposed on Sami communities so they could pay taxes, which in turn cemented the image of the reindeer-herding, nomadic Sami. Even today, only a small portion of Sami people, i.e. an estimated 10%, are professionally engaged with reindeer, since it yields limited profit. Neither have all Samis always been nomads and in the course of the 19th century, the allegedly universal nomadism of Sami people was even used as an argument in favour of land expropriations and displacement.

A Lutheran revival movement called Læstadianism used to be tightly associated with the Sami as well. In the 19th century, the teachings of its founder, the Sami-Swedish priest Lars Levi Læstadius, gained most notably ground among the Sami and spread quickly due to their nomadic lifestyle. The popularity of Læstadius’ teachings among Sami had several reasons. Læstadianism somewhat constituted a renunciation of the state church, since it encourages individual devotion. It also rejects the consumption of alcohol. Many Sami, in turn, took a liking to both of these aspects of Læstadianism, due to their troubled history with Nordic state churches and the widespread issue of alcoholism among them, a corollary of this age of colonialism. The Kautokeino riots of 1852, which took place in the Northern Norwegian town of Kautokeino, constituted, however, a setback. After a few minor conflicts resulting from some individuals’ renunciation of both the Norwegian state church and the local merchant’s liquor offer, a group of Sami killed two representatives of the Norwegian authorities on 8 November 1852 and burned down the merchant’s house. This event debased the reputation of Læstadianism and had repercussions for the Sami community in the form of executions, labour camp detentions and a tightening of assimilatory measures. For most of history, the Kautokeino riots were considered the work of religious fanatics. In 2008, however, the movie The Kautokeino Rebellion by Sami-Norwegian director Nils Gaup (and featuring music by Mari Boine) diversified this narrative by portraying the riotous Sami as freedom fighters opposing ethnic and political subjugation.

By the time The Kautokeino Rebellion was released, the Sami communities had, however, already gained considerable momentum, with the greatest achievement arguably being the establishment of Sami Parliaments in Norway (established 1989 in Karasjok), Sweden (established 1993 in Kiruna) and Finland (established 1995 in Inari). As stated earlier, the Sami have always been a highly diverse group of people(s) spread over a vast territory, which historically has made it difficult for them to organize unified resistance against discrimination and subjugation. This changed in the 20th century. In 1906, Isak Saba, a teacher of Sami origin, was elected to the Norwegian Parliament called Stortinget. He is also the author of the Sami national anthem Sámi soga lávlla. The first international (i.e. Norwegian-Swedish) Sami conference was hosted in 1917. When large swaths of Northern Europe were evacuated during World War II, many Sami were resettled in the South of their respective countries, which increased contact in between Sami individuals and groups. Hence, the Saami Council, an umbrella organization for all Sami institutions, was founded in 1956. Sami Parliaments followed in the late 20th century, starting with the opening of the Norwegian Sami Parliament on 9 October 1989. This milestone in the progress towards Sami self-determination was effected through unified protests against a hydro-electric power plant at the Alta river in Norway in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Since a Sami village at the Alta river was directly affected by these plans, massive protests were organized which drew the attention of the entire country. The power plant was eventually built and opened in 1987, but the Norwegian Sami had at the same time made themselves heard and on 9 October 1989, the Norwegian Sami Parliament held its first session. The Swedish and Finnish Sami followed suit; the Russian Sami, on the other hand, established the Kola Sámi Assembly in 2010, after convening the first Congress of the Russian Sami in 2008, which demanded the establishment of a Russian Sami Parliament. This demand was, however, rejected by Russia and the Kola Sámi Assembly, which now acts as a parliament of the Russian Sami, is not recognized.

Another crucial step towards lending a powerful political voice to the Sami was the ratification of the ILO (International Labour Organization) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (C169) by Norway in 1990. Norway was the very first of the few countries that have ratified this Convention so far; Finland, Russia and Sweden have, however, not signed it yet. This Convention obliges signatory states to, among other things, “assist[…] the members of the peoples concerned to eliminate socio-economic gaps that may exist between indigenous and other members of the national community” (Article 2), to, where possible, consider “methods of punishment other than confinement in prison” (Article 10) in the case of a (serious) crime committed by a member of the indigenous community, and to recognize the “rights of ownership and possession of the peoples concerned over the lands which they traditionally occupy” (Article 14). The so-called Everyman’s right, which grants everybody the right to enter or use owned land (for example by picking mushrooms) as long as no harm or damage is inflicted upon this land, has been brought up as a reason for Finland’s reluctance to grant the Sami stronger ownership than other citizens over some territories, as is suggested by Article 14 of the Convention. Since Swedish nationals, too, enjoy the Everyman’s Right, there is reason to suspect similar considerations behind the Swedes’ refusal to sign the ILO Convention No. 169. However, Norwegian citizens also have the freedom to roam, which somewhat weakens any argument produced by defenders of the Nordic Everyman’s Right.

Despite this minor setback for the Finnish and Swedish Sami, as well as some more major obstacles faced by the Russian Sami, the past 100 years have thus witnessed increased efforts – and successes – at cooperating and establishing a unified voice among the Sami. One universal symbol of this endeavour is the Sami flag (see Figure 3), which was officially adopted on 15 August 1986. The two half-circles featured in the flag represent the Moon and the Sun, the latter of which being a reference to the Sami poem Páiven párneh (‘Sons of the Sun’) by Southern Sami poet Anders Fjellner, while together they symbolize the unity of the Sami people. The colours featured in the flag are all common to the different traditional Sami outfits, although these, too, vary greatly both in looks and name across the vast Sami area; many Norwegian Sami would call their traditional clothing kofte, whereas in Sweden it is rather known as kolt. Finally, a Sami National Day, celebrated every year on 6 February, was established in 1993.

Despite all of these substantial successes, the Sami identity and a coming-to-terms with the colonial past of the Nordic countries remain dominant topics of popular Sami culture products. Mari Boine’s breakthrough album Gula Gula, released in 1990, for example, contains a song titled Oppskrift for Herrefolk (‘Recipe for a Master Race’) and thematizes the assimilation policies of the Norwegian church, state and society. The Sami musician also shared her experiences of discrimination in a documentary series called Den stille kampen (‘The Silent Struggle’), aired in 2013 on NRK TV. One of the more sensational cultural products with a Sami subject matter of recent years was the Swedish movie Sameblod (‘Sami Blood’) by Amanda Kernell, a Swedish director with Sami ancestry. The movie depicts the story of a young Sami girl attending a boarding school in 1930’s Sweden, i.e. at a time when scientific racism had reached a peak. The movie was first shown at the Venice Film Festival in 2016 and has ever since won multiple awards.

In recent years, various Sami artists have furthermore stepped forward to address minorities within the broader Sami community and thus to challenge widespread notions of a monolithic, reactionary Sami culture. In 2012, Sami-Norwegian photographer Iris Egilsdatter opened an exhibition in Oslo depicting Sami women’s sexuality, as a reaction to the "conservative impulses she feels have held back women in the indigenous population". Blog posts from a young lesbian female Sami furthermore made waves after being published in the form of a book in 2008, which carries the title Ihpil. Láhppon mánáid bestejeaddji, Ihpil (‘ghost’) being the author’s blog name. Readers of this novel were furthermore informed that the author had been found drowned in Tromsø harbour the year before, which, due to the fits of depression depicted in the blog novel, could have been the result of suicide. In 2010, however, a Norwegian translation of this blog novel called Ihpil. De fortapte barns frelser (‘Ihpil. The Lost Children’s Saviour’) was published and the novel’s editor, the Sami-Norwegian (male) writer Sigbjørn Skåden admitted to having invented the entire story because he wanted to “write modern, contemporary Sami literature and explore the theme of homosexuality in Sami society”. In 2014, Skåden continued his endeavours to produce modern Sami literature with a focus on double minorities by publishing Våke over dem som sover (‘Waking Over Those Who Sleep’), an autobiographically inspired novel thematizing the discrimination of smaller Sami groups by Sami majorities, as well as the series of cases of assault and statutory rape within the Kautokeino Sami community that were uncovered in 2006.

These are only a few examples of a bigger trend. In 2011, Swedish photographer Sara Lindquist co-initiated a project called Queering Sápmi featuring depictions of and interviews with Sami individuals from the LGBTQ community. The past century has brought remarkable progress to the Sami, but now an increasing share of artists seems to strive towards a more nuanced image of their culture. As stated by Lindquist, “The common Swedish perception of a Sami is that of a heterosexual, middle-aged man who yoiks and has reindeer. This is an extremely distorted image of what reality looks like”.


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia