Sámi research has developed in the cross-draught of political activism and institutionalization
The photograph above is from Lássagammi, the Sámi artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s late home. Valkeapää was a prominent figure in the Sámi ethnopolitical movement and after his early death, the house, which is located in the village of Skibotn in Finnmark, was bought by a public foundation which administers Valkeapää’s creative output, and turned into a “residence for native and foreign artists or researchers with a Sámi or indigenous perspective in their work”.
I chose this photograph, because it reflects the history of Sámi ethnopolitical movement and bridges it with the present era of Sámi political and cultural institutionalization. A similar tension between political activism and institutionalization frames also my own approach to the politics of Sámi research.
The proliferation of anticolonial movements over the latter part of the 20th century prompted the Sámi to demand their rights as a self-determining Indigenous people.
The Sámi have been objects of intensive research attention throughout the history of modern Europe. They have been physically measured, their traditions, artefacts and languages have been mapped by European and Scandinavian ethnographers, and their livelihoods and patterns of land use studied in the service of government. By the mid 20th century, these activities had resulted in an extensive body of research which, while being versatile, looked at the Sámi primarily from the perspective of the dominant societies and the state. Sámi voices, perspectives and interests were missing.
The proliferation of anticolonial movements over the latter part of the 20th century prompted also the Sámi to demand their rights as a self-determining Indigenous people. As an aspect of the ethnopolitical movement, there were calls to “Sámify” knowledge production, and to create new institutional bases for research which would be accountable to the Sami society’s own needs and worldviews. Such demands found support in a broader paradigm change towards new post-positivist and critical approaches, which questioned the objectivity and eurocentricism of established approaches to the social sciences and humanities. The first Sámi research institution, which embodied the change towards new Sámi research, was the Sámi Instituhtta (Nordic Sámi Institute), which was established in Guovdageaidnu in Norway in 1973.
Since then, institutes, study programs and research projects committed to this transformation have sharply proliferated, and general interest in Sámi identities and cultures also seems to be rising. At the same time, the Nordic state’s interest in the government of Sámi lands and societies has grown, given the Arctic region’s rising economical, geopolitical and logistical importance. Academic knowledge of Sámi societies, identities, livelihoods, cultures and histories is thus again in high demand – but this time by multiple actors, and often for highly conflicting reasons.
The aim of my research has been to map and understand some of the new challenges, issues and opportunities that this new conjuncture is presenting to Sámi society and research. Working in Finland, where Sámi identity has become highly politicized and problematized, such research has inevitably focused on new struggles over Sámi voice and identity which border indigenous identity appropriation, and on their link to academic knowledge production and state policy.
In Norway, such struggles have not really emerged, nor become a political issue. In Finland, the conflict around Sámi identity centers on the Sámi Parliament’s electoral register, and thereby, on control over the Sámi Parliament itself. The foundations of the register were laid in the1960s when a profoundly important Sámi census was undertaken in Finland, largely by the Sámi themselves. One of the field researchers who conducted the door-to-door interviews was young Nils-Aslak Valkeapää.
Photo: The bookshelf at Lássagammi’s library room contains books on Sámi arts, history and society in several languages. Photograph taken in October 2019.