Sámi history is a site of multiple contestations
The statue “Reindeer and a Lapp”, by the Finnish sculptor Ensio Seppänen, stands in Sodankylä, just below the southern edge of Finland’s Sámi region. The statue was erected in 1970, “to honor the great work that the man of Lapland and the rest of Finland has done on the fells and forests for the sake of his home and fatherland in the harsh and unique province of Lapland”.
A central aim of the Sámi ethnopolitical movement was to contest these imaginaries and to build a clear understanding of the Sámi as a distinct people with a culture and history of its own.
Although Sámi reindeer herders have for a long time had an iconic role in Finnish representations of Lapland, the difference between Finnish and Sámi inhabitants of the northernmost region has been highly elusive on the level of national imagination. Both in cultural representations and state policy, the Sámi were for long time considered primarily as “Sámi speaking Finns”.
A central aim of the Sámi ethnopolitical movement was to contest these imaginaries and to build a clear understanding of the Sámi as a distinct people with a culture and history of its own. As with other indigenous peoples, the recovery of Sámi peoples’ oral histories, which challenge and contest dominant narratives and perceptions of the past, was central to this task. This work was essential for Sámi nation-building as well as for the institutionalization of Sámi rights.
However, as Sámi history writing has become more established, taking hold also in formal and policy contexts, these histories have also become contested. In Finland, Finnish researchers who seek to undo Sámi ‘ownership’ of the region’s past have begun rewriting the history of Lapland, often in ways that not only defy, but at times even directly negate, Sámi history writing.
Over time, such efforts have become popular also among Lapland’s Finnish inhabitants, many of whom are now looking to the distant past in order to establish a personal connection to Sámi ancestry and identity. From the perspective of established history research, these new interpretations appear highly mystifying and arbitrary, resembling, at times, efforts to distort the past to create ‘alternative truths’.
Sámi and reindeer have belonged to popular imagery in Finnish Lapland also outside of the Sámi area. During recent decades, ownership over this imagery and over Sámi identity has become a central arena of contestation. Statue “Reindeer and Lapp” (1970) by Ensio Seppänen in the center of Sodankylä. Photo: The Arctic University Museum of Norway.