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Cultural appropriation of Saami in Northern Europe: “Make as much noise as you can”

By Enrique Tessieri, Migrant Tales, Finland

24 November 2017 - Petra Laiti, the chairperson of the Finnish Sámi Youth Organisation, is one of many Saami that does not shy away from pointing out how inappropriate and demeaning cultural appropriation is.

The most recent case of cultural appropriation in Finland was seen in October when a Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) host put on a Native American feathered hairpiece. To add insult to injury, the YLE TV host aired on the same programme a clip of a Finnish 1960 “comedy” with blackfaced actors.

Politicians are another group that were named and shamed this year for cultural appropriation. In Norway, the country’s finance minister, Siv Jensen of the right-wing populist Progress Party (FrP), landed in hot water in October after posing with a Pocahontas dress at a ministry costume party. In the spring, Finnish Social Democratic Party MP Satu Taavitsainen posed on Instagram wearing a fake Saami costume and this caused a vigorous debate in social media between the MP and representatives of the Saami community.

If there is something that unites Jensen and Taavitsainen it is their hostile views of minority and migrant rights. Jensen has gone as far as to call for the dismantling of the Saami Parliament, an elected body, in her country.

In 2012, Jensen stood on a podium of the Saami Parliament and vowed to shut it down. The FrP minister said that the building would make a beautiful museum and that such institutions hinder the development of North Norway.

In the face of these hostile speeches coupled with a long history of encroachment and assimilation policies in the Nordic region, Petra Laiti, Chairperson of the Finnish Sámi Youth Organization believes that cultural appropriation cases that pop up offer an opportunity to bring to public attention a number of issues facing the Saami today.

“While unfortunate, recent cases [of cultural appropriation] offer an opportunity to raise awareness in public about the issue [as well as our struggle for greater rights],” said Laiti. “Cultural appropriation is about power and minorities are never consulted. Our costumes are sacred and are the only thing we have left.”

Laiti said that she follows closely debates on cultural appropriation in countries like the United States where US American football and baseball teams use mascots like the Redskins and the Indians, respectively. The Zwarte Piet/Black Pete blackface character in the Netherlands and Belgium is another example of cultural appropriation, according to the chairperson of the Finnish Sámi Youth Organization.

“At this moment the only thing you can do [against cultural appropriation as a minority] is to make as much noise as you can,” said Laiti. “You rally your troops, and you make it clear that cultural appropriation is disrespectful.”

The history of the Saami of northern Europe, which number between 65,000 and 110,000 today, according to some estimates, has been about defending their culture and rights from encroachment and government acculturation policies. In the 1970s, for example, Saami pupils were punished at Finnish schools for speaking their mother tongue.

“I used to believe that the only way to move forward to get more rights for the Saami was to strengthen our political backbone,” she said. “Today I disagree with that approach because it’s not possible for us to get those political rights without a larger network of local support.”

“The best way to get self-determination is to do the determining [yourself],” Laiti added.

The Northern Lapland region is a magnet for tourism, and this has created problems for the Saami. The tourist industry sells souvenirs of Saami dolls, artifacts and costumes that are fake and made for the sole purpose of profit. “One of the matters that we are working on is copyrighting and better defending our cultural symbols,” she said.

Far-right groups have also used the Saami as a way to justify their racist and xenophobic positions on migrants, and to the pit communities against each other. “Such groups claim to protect us [from migrants],” she continued. “We’re not directly impacted by their rhetoric, but as a minority, we have suffered from hate speech against us.”

In many respects, migrants and their children, which are minorities as well, face the same challenges but in a different context when it comes to defending their culture and roots. “We must remember to defend those traditions of our culture that still remain,” she concluded. “When you lose them all you can do is regret.”

Why write about cultural appropriation?

As an anthropology student in the mid-1970s, my first fieldwork was on the Saami of Ohcejohka (Utsjoki), a village located in the northernmost part of Finland.

During those years, cultural appropriation and selling fake artefacts to tourists was the norm. The Finnish tourist industry profited – and still does – by exploiting and appropriating the rights of Saami culture. You could buy such souvenirs even at petrol stations.

Masquerading artefacts such as bags, four winds hats, sweaters, Made in Hong Kong Saami dolls as “the real thing” required some reindeer fur matched with stripes of blue, red and yellow. Your ignorance and prejudices of the Saami were what made the deception complete.

What is symbolic about the cultural appropriation and exploitation that went on back in the 1970s was that Saami children were not allowed to speak their mother tongue at Finnish schools.

Considering this, it is encouraging that the Saami are fighting back and rescuing what is still left of their culture. Petra Laiti, the chairperson of the Finnish Sámi Youth Organisation, said that their costumes and cultural symbols are sacred and are “the only thing we have left.”

Even if the Saami are putting up a noble fight back against cultural appropriation, their struggle is not only vital to them but to all minorities. It’s an effective way of taking back control of what was stolen and exploited from them.

Enrique Tessieri is editor of Migrant Tales, a blog that debates salient issues facing the immigrant and minority community in Finland and elsewhere. It aims to be a voice for those whose views and situation are understood poorly and heard faintly by the media, politicians and public.

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