All posts by Ilona Kater

Håkon Hermanstrand, Asbjørn Kolberg, Trond Risto Nilssen and Leiv Sem (eds.), The Indigenous Identity of the South Saami: Historical and Political Perspectives on a Minority within a Minority (Cham: Springer, 2019)

Books written about identity, and specifically the identity of those in less well-known cultures, can easily fall into an exoticizing trap, focusing more on why those groups are different or ‘unusual’ than on who they simply are. Editors Håkon Hermanstrand, Asbjørn Kolberg, Trond Risto Nilssen and Leiv Sem manage to avoid this trap very well in their book The Indigenous Identity of the South Saami: Historical and Political Perspectives on a Minority within a Minority. Within it, they show how identity as a concept is felt, formed, reformed and perceived in various ways, using examples from the context of the South Saami, a minority within the larger Indigenous Saami minority in Fenno-Scandia. This makes for a piece of scholarly work relevant to those wishing to explore wider questions of representation, as well as a helpful volume for those seeking out information specifically about the South Saami.

The book is organised into five sections. The first contains an introductory chapter by the editors, sharing a brief overview of relevant history and their hope that the book will contribute towards creating a “memory environment”, promoting awareness and knowledge about the South Saami. They describe the wider academic discussions around Indigenous representation, alongside providing a brief positionality statement themselves and an acknowledgement that the book does not definitively answer any questions on identity, instead contributing to the negotiations around this multifaceted topic. This self-reflective tone rightfully fills the reader with confidence that the book is being approached from a duly nuanced perspective.

Section 2 dives into the complex world of identity in relation to language. Chapter 2 by Brit Mæhlum takes a practical and historical approach, discussing the institutional factors that have influenced the decline of the South Saami language, as well as those that have helped it to survive. She notes the role of schooling, the geographic spread of South Saami speakers, and the use of the language in the reindeer herding livelihood as particularly important in these processes. The chapter finishes by asking how the Saami identity can negotiate between tradition and the innovation and change inherent in all living, breathing cultures.

Chapter 3 by Inger Johansen continues by exploring the idea of the ‘identity tangle’, namely that the question is not of being or not being, but rather of how to be. This is done through outlining 10 South Saami language profiles. There are, for example, ‘Language Shifters’ who have chosen to use Norwegian or Swedish as a home language to help their children better navigate the dominant society, although with some regret to their loss of South Saami skills. On the other hand, ‘Reversed Shifters’ have grown up without the language yet intend to learn and become fluent speakers specifically for the sake of raising their children in a South Saami speaking household. Other profiles relate to the extent of ability in the language, but also the context of how and why the individual’s ability is at that level, and how they intend to use it. More than mere categorisation, this chapter does a brilliant job in outlining the nuances and diversity of individual experiences of identity in relation to their language. It shows how language transmission is situated in a complex emotional world.

Whereas section 2 could be said to focus more on self-identification, section 3 examines how the story of the South Saami has been written by others. ‘Written’ here is the key word, as it specifically questions the validity of written archival materials that tend to be viewed as more reliable than other sources. Chapter 4 by Håkon Hermanstrand reassesses the 1801 Norwegian census, outlining how the identification of the Saami in this record was inconsistent and at times clearly incorrect, based largely on the assumptions, preferences and biases of the census takers. Erik Norberg’s following chapter further critiques our overreliance on written records, outlining the value and wealth of archaeological and palaeo-biological records. He advocates for bringing these disciplinary approaches together to create a more rounded history of the South Saami region.

Turning back to the archives, Section 4 explores how the South Saami have been depicted, mostly by the dominant Norwegian society, over the last two centuries. Cathrine Baglo’s chapter does this from a more unusual angle, using picture postcards from approximately 1880-1950. Not assuming these postcards depict what South Saami culture actually was or is, she rather traces how the public’s understanding of the culture was constructed through the use of motifs and tropes within the images printed and sold. Asbjørn Kolberg also traces the evolution of depiction in chapter 7, outlining how regional presses have reported on Saami-related topics from 1880–1990. The arc of this change goes from generally well-intentioned aims at objectivity but with patronizing and exoticizing undertones, to a shift in the 1970s towards more works trying to see things from a Saami perspective. The details of this evolution are also linked to key societal events, particularly in the political sphere, that brought Saami topics to the fore.

Finally, section 5 lays out how some of these discussions around identity and representation are affecting the South Saami today. In chapter 8, Leiv Sem shows that a notable history of the Trøndelag region published in 2005 maintains some worrying characteristics of excluding and minimising Saami presence in the region, despite being such a recent publication. This highlights that the question of fair and accurate Saami representation is still an area of ongoing work. Trond Risto Nilssen expands this further in chapter 9 through the case study of the Fosen windfarm, a controversial construction project that has led to court disputes relating to its negative impacts on reindeer herding. Nilssen argues that underpinning this controversy is a lack of understanding that the reindeer herding livelihood has great importance, even amongst non-herding Saami. Maintenance of the livelihood is intimately connected to maintenance of the language, culture and overall identity, and so damage to one means damage to the others.

Overall, this book makes for a thought-provoking read. It raises universal questions about how we define group identity, how these definitions can vary within a group, how others can define us, and what impact these understandings can have in our wider lives. This is nicely interwoven with stories of how the South Saami are currently negotiating these questions, leaving the reader with a nuanced awareness and knowledge of this dynamic minority within a minority.

Sanna Valkonen, Áile Aikio, Saara Alakorva and Sigga-Marja Magga (eds.), The Sámi World (London and New York: Routledge, 2022)

Long has cultural research involved scholars heading out into the ‘unknown’, writing gripping (and often inaccurate) tales about the peoples and societies they have met along the way. Understandably, this has caused much frustration for these ‘unknown’ people who know themselves very well, and who have had few opportunities to correct inaccurate representations, or to self-represent their worlds in academic literature. Published in 2022, The Sámi World is an invaluable contribution towards countering this trend.

Edited by Sanna Valkonen, Áile Aikio, Saara Alakorva and Sigga-Marja Magga, this scholarly work takes the reader through the past, present and potential future worlds of the Sámi, the Indigenous peoples of northern Europe and western Russia. Each chapter in the book acts as a stand-alone research paper, with overarching themes threaded throughout. A significant number of the chapter authors are Sámi themselves, or have long been embedded in Sámi communities, so rather than author and reader being two outsiders peering in and trying to make sense of this world, it often feels like the reader is a guest being invited in to learn from someone about their own reality. This can be seen in the prominent use of the various Sámi languages, with Sámi terminology for concepts reminding us that this world does not need to rely on Western theories to explain it, instead having its own body of knowledge and understandings. The inclusion of many quotes in Sámi languages first, followed by English translations, further highlights that the Sámi world is a complete, rich world within itself, rather than just a curiosity on the fringes of dominant society.

The first section, entitled Guođohit – Living with/in Nature, is made up of twelve chapters that explore Sámi relationships with their environment. Alongside more popular discussions of Indigenous land rights and the environmental knowledge of reindeer herders, the often forgotten subsistence activities of egg and berry gathering are included, further noting the roles of coffee, birch sap, and vitamin D deficiencies in Northern diets. When exploring how information about the environment is communicated, the role of oral histories and symbolisms within clothing such as the gákti are included, alongside lesser-known forms of knowledge transmission such as the musical storytelling of Skolt Saami leu’dd.

These highly informative chapters do not shy away from being critical. When discussing some of the ways the Sámi world has been communicated to wider audiences, authors outline how museums and the tourism industry have repeatedly provided inaccurate, staged depictions of Sámi cultures which homogenise and primitivise, ironically often under the guise of wanting to provide audiences with ‘authenticity’. Another chapter discusses how sacred sieidi sites, which hold a deep spiritual significance that has been expressed through changing practices over time, are simplified and stripped of meaning within archaeological narratives, just labelled as sites of animal sacrifice. Further, some authors highlight the constantly evolving nature of what it means to be Sámi, such as the roles of the Laestadian and Lutheran faiths within this identity. Even seemingly positive narratives of ‘strong Sámi women’ in ‘historically egalitarian societies’ are questioned in a chapter on feminist understandings of the impacts of colonisation on matriarchal and patriarchal Sámi societal structures.

The second section entitled Gierdat – Living through/in Societal Ruptures, which also contains twelve chapters, explores shifts in Sámi identity and representation. Beginning with recent history, authors tell the painful tales of residential schools, language suppression and harsh assimilation policies, with valuable nuance that acknowledges how experiences differed both through time and across the nation states that intersect the Sámi homeland. This gives context to later chapters exploring new formats of identity and representation today, from the development of the symbolically unifying Sámi flag, to novel administrative structures in Stockholm that cater for Sámi living in urban settings outside the traditional northern homelands. Once again, the authors do not avoid the complexities of these subjects. For example, they question the markers of identity that allow one to be part of new administrative and political structures, and highlight how inclusion in these structures can lead to both cultural revitalisation and abuse of power for external political ends. Following on from topics of communication in the previous section, authors explore the ways in which various Sámi groups have sought to self-represent, from protests to the formation of Sámi media in newspapers, literature, radio and TV.

The final section of eleven chapters, Duostat – Envisioning Sámi Futures, looks at how Sámi today are enacting, constructing and relearning their world. Authors discuss how skills and knowledge that have been temporarily lost, whether language or the construction of the ládjogahpir hat, are being regained. To safeguard this future, chapters lay out practical information such as ethical research guidelines created for researchers wishing to work with Sámi communities, and governance structures that could be (or be better) applied in today’s legal landscape. This section engages with key contemporary discourses, like the overlap between feminist approaches and queer world making with the Sámi world. It also proposes new approaches that have yet to be widely adopted in scholarly research, such as researching the activism of having fun.

The Sámi World gently unsettles common narratives about Sámi life by simply including. This is not involvement of more Sámi authors, but inclusion of diverse knowledge about and from Skolt Sámi, Queer Sámi, Urban Sámi, egg collecting Sámi, and many other parts of the Sámi world we hear less about. Whilst not one, unified storyline, it feels like a key go-to reference book for academics, which is deeply and often delightfully informative about a wide range of Sámi topics. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, in the epilogue of The Sámi World, sums it up quite nicely:

It has been an unmitigated pleasure and an adventure to delve into this treasure of a book. Although it is an academic publication with all the appropriate trappings in place, and even if the topic is sometimes grim, it is as if the authors cannot quite conceal their passion for the Sámi world, generously spiking their chapters with anecdotes and stories, details from domestic life and vivid descriptions of nature imagery from Sápmi. A good read it is, and an enlightening one.”