A People Not Here, Nowhere, Everywhere

Coming from California, the role and future of indigenous populations is often on my mind. I remember studying the Christianization of the California Indians, the mass resettlement of Native American tribes, and the centuries of institutionalized disenfranchisement by state and national policy. I’ve also watched as some tribes make lemonade out of so many lemons, building up tourism, natural resources, or, most frequently in California, gambling as niche industries where they have agency and opportunity.

I expected the same here, but that was not the case. With American indigenous peoples on the one hand, I wanted to compare with Finland’s native population, the Sámi.

Q: “What do you know about the Sámi?”

A: “Oh…they are…up there, in Lapland.”

A: “They keep to themselves. Very secretive.”

A: “Mostly in Sweden. Or maybe Norway. Some in Russia?”

A: “I don’t know any Sámi.”

And so on. Conversations about the Sámi became comically convoluted. The Sámi were everywhere, just not here. The Sámi existed here, but kept to themselves. It was impossible to meet a Sámi person, because you would never know, unless you were one yourself.

In these exchanges with everyday Finns, the Sámi appeared to be a perpetually peripheral people – always on the outside, edges, fringes, or underside of society. They were that which was not properly “Finnish,” but to whom Finland does “belong.” They were, in short, an “other” of a most textbook sort: a people who were included in the broad category of Finns, but something else as well.

As a primer, the Sámi are the only recognized indigenous population of Scandinavia. While their language arose out of similar Finno-Ugric roots to Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, it is markedly different – especially after these months hearing Finnish – and not mutually intelligible. Their traditional territory spans Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola region in Russia, which they call, simply, elegantly, Sápmi. Genetically, they are their own haplogroup. Their civilizations predate medieval Swedish conquest and reflect traditions robust and hallowed.

They have also shared much the same fate at American indigenous populations. Sápmi has become chopped and screwed by Nordic borders, and centuries-old sustainable reindeer herding practices have been disrupted and limited by conservative land-use regulations.

Part of a visual at Siida representing Sami forced migration.

And the Sámi have dispersed as well. They were no longer just “up there” in Sápmi, in Finnish Lapland. They went everywhere – there are even Sámi in San Francisco – but mostly they were drawn south. One Finnish-Sámi artist I spoke with called it “the slow trickle southward.” Another called it “Helsinki’s siren song – jobs and money and university.”

With this context – a peripheral indigenous people, fragmentation and disenfranchisement, and changing cultural modes – I journeyed to the northernmost municipalities of Finland to find out more about the Sámi, to visit a unique school – the Sámi Education Institute, which offers traditional Sámi language and vocational training alongside traditional upper-secondary instruction – and to visit Siida, the Sámi cultural archives and museum.

In fact, those two destinations marked the extremes of how I understand the Sámi experience.

At the Sámi Education Institute, I spoke with students and teachers about the key aspects of Sámi identity (as opposed to a strictly Finnish identity) and what the future of Sápmi and Finland could be. For the Sámi in Inari, language seemed to be as important for their sense of community as for the rest of Finland. Part of their culture was performative and discursive. By speaking Sámi, you were in some way enacting Sámi identity.

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But I also learned how the language is inextricably tied to the twin anchors of livestock and handicrafts (which are also tied to each other). A significant part of the work the Sámi Education Institute does is to teach the preservation of a cultural tradition through practice, through action. And, wisely, they work to turn this cultural heritage into a commodity. Capitalist critiques aside, by engaging in the market on their own collective terms, they at least exercise some control of how their culture is experienced and consumed. This seems integral for the Sámis’ continued survival.

It was striking to see that almost as a rule, the Sámi were more transnational, almost as a core principle. Sámi from across the Nordic zone appear to be working in partnership, national parliaments talking to each other, collaborating toward the preservation of sustainable agriculture and land use as well as advancing national policies.

Much of the good that I saw, however, has been executed by the Sámi alone. In recent decades, the countries that occupy what was once Sápmi have instituted some policies friendly to Sámi traditions and they have earned some key areas of autonomy, but it many cases it has been a uphill battle, against resettlement, conversion, assimilation, and the strife of war. At least, this was some of what I learned at Siida. Their exhibits, which document the history of the Sámi as a whole describe a lifestyle that was peaceful until it was not. Nationalism and war disrupted Sámi life, almost irremediably.

Helsinki is now the largest Sámi “village” in Finland, so what it means to be a Sámi, to practice and participate in the culture are changing. I imagine, like all social shifts, it is hard and painful and sometimes awkward, uncomfortable, but those feelings are not all bad. After all, it reminds the Sámi, the new 21st century Sámi, that Sápmi, their land, is getting bigger, international, global, and not shrinking.


One thought on “A People Not Here, Nowhere, Everywhere

  1. It really a fascinating subject – I think the Sami have it clearly worse here than in Norway and Sweden. This is probably partly due to language and culture: Finnish is related to Sami and in prehistory the Finns outside the agricultural areas lived not so differently from Samis. Even today the reindeer raising Laplanders (Finnish inhabitants of Lapland) are disputing the Sami native rights – as they don’t think that they are much different (wrongly though in my opinion). With our Scandinavian cousins the reindeer farming is much more ethnically exclusive living.


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