“Okay, so there’s nothing here on the Sámi people”, I noticed at the end of an introductory tour of the House of European History.
I was visiting the relatively new House of European History at the beginning of February as part of a group of twenty odd individuals involved in the Remembering 1918 programme. Each one of us had the task that day of leading our own public tours of the House of European History. After the introductory tour, we were given a few hours to prepare to offer our own views on the museum’s exhibition which deals with European history.
My objective was clear: I wanted to tell the people coming to listen to me about the Sámi people and Sámi culture.
The House of European History’s lack of exhibits and content about the Sámi people did not disturb me. During the introductory tour, I had bumped into several exhibits that I could use to highlight a Sámi perspective and world view to my visitors.
One people separated by the borders of four nation states.
I began my tour at the exhibition’s display of maps. The Sámi are the European Union’s only recognised indigenous people. Yet, their territory, a region known as Sápmi, is shown scattered across the borders drawn on the museum’s maps. These borders have separated the Sámi people into four nation states: Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia.
Despite this, we can be considered a very European people in the sense that we try to live as one people as unhindered as possible by the borders that have been drawn through our land. We cross borders to go to work, visit relatives and come together at festivals. Scattered across four countries, Sámi people are bound by their shared language, culture, customs and history.
“The gákti I am wearing is our most significant monument”
The second stop on my tour is in front of exhibits of European mythology. I draw attention to the statues that are on display.
“When you visit our museums, you won’t find any statues. Part of our culture involves leaving as few traces as possible in nature, and taking only what we need. Instead of erecting statues, the traditional gákti I am wearing is our most significant monument. It is also an important part of our identity and acts as an entire communication system letting a fellow Sámi know where I am from, my marital status and what kind of occasion I am going to.”
This is only the second stop on our tour, but already my group is growing excited. They ask questions about my gákti, about the Sámi language and whether the Sámi receive European support for their ventures. The group’s excitement is palpable and infectious. I can feel the inquisitive group drawing closer and closer to me with each question.
This is a familiar reaction. Almost nothing is taught in schools about the Sami and Sami people are mostly invisible in society and the mainstream media.
“There is a need for these kinds of tours, not only in Brussels but also in Finland and other Nordic countries”, I reflect.
Settler colonialism and craniometry
Although the House of European History has no exhibits about the Sámi people, many historical turning points and stains on European history also relate to the Sámi. Near the slave shackles shown at the start of the exhibition, I talk about the fact that the Sámi too have experienced colonialism. It is not the type of colonialism that, for example, certain colonies in Africa or Asia experienced. Sámi territory was colonised through settler colonialism. The colonising ideology was nonetheless the same and based on finding a people considered less civilised and less valued, and using that to justify stealing their natural resources.
Settler colonialism is upheld through legislation, the church and education. Although societies in the Nordic countries are made up of Sámi and other majority populations, they are built solely on the terms of the majority populations. Settler colonialism is ongoing and continues to affect societal structures in the Nordic countries.
In front of an old photograph of an incidence of cranial measuring taken in Africa, I share that this picture could easily have been taken in the Sámi region in the 1930s. The Sámi too were subjected to studies of evolutionary biology and were measured using the same craniometry instruments pictured here. Many people on the tour are familiar with this part of Sámi history through the film ‘Sameblod’, or ‘Sami Blood’ in English. Telling the story of Sámi film director Amanda Kernell’s grandmother, this film has been shown internationally and has won awards in Europe. Without blame, it tells the heart-rending story of a Sámi girl living in the 1930s who encounters discrimination, humiliation and hatred.
The Sámi do not have their own representatives in national or European parliaments
The second last stop on my tour is in front of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. The UN is a critical organisation for the Sámi, who do not have their own representatives in national governments or the European parliament. The Sámi are in a key position to improve the status of indigenous peoples in international justice via the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and promote indigenous nations in the UN’s permanent forums for indigenous nations.
Still, to have even a single representative in national governments or the European parliament would be significant. A Sámi representative would be a clear go-to-person, through whom fact-based, trustworthy and current information about the Sami people could be spread to fellow parliamentary representatives.
“I learnt more in 45 minutes than in 50 years of life”
I concluded my time as a tour guide in front of a wall of class photographs. All the challenges of the Sámi people arise from the fact that no one knows about us – even the acclaimed Finnish school system manages to teach hardly anything about the Sámi. It would be of the utmost importance to include teaching about the Sámi at every grade level, deepening and broadening this knowledge every year. Only in this way can the legal status of the Sámi be improved.
I am grateful for the opportunity to lead a tour about the Sámi at the House of European History. The best response came from a Finnish gentleman who was visiting Brussels.
He summed up the experience saying: “I learnt more about the Sámi in 45 minutes than in my entire 50 years of life. Ironically, I had to travel all the way to Brussels for this to happen”.
Now here would be a challenge for the House of European History: by adding a section about the Sámi to the central exhibition, the museum could act as a vital source of information on the EU’s only recognised indigenous people.
Blog post of January 2019: In 2018, the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux’s programme focused on Transition. In 2019, our theme is RE/definitions.
For some years now, I have tried to live my life with this principle in mind: because everything around us is constantly in transition, almost anything can become a reality. By this I mean our fears as well as opportunities, both the positive and negative ways of thinking about the future of our world. Personally, I would like to believe that we are capable of moving towards a better tomorrow, even if reality as filtered through our daily newsfeed often seems to contradict this.
Blog post of December 2018: How did you wake up this morning? Maybe to an alarm on your cell phone? What was your first thought? For many of us it’s “Can I sleep for another half hour?”. And, what was your last thought of the evening? Maybe you thought about whether you could watch just one more episode on your streaming service or whether it was really time for you to go to sleep. In fact, it is likely that these were the first and last risk management decisions of your day. Each of one us makes hundreds of risk management decisions whether we are at home, in our free time, or at work. Do you know the kinds of risks you are taking while navigating the digital world in our everyday life?
Blog post of June 2018: What if the future of music came from the Far North? There is no doubt that Nordic and Finnish musicians play an important role in the international music scene. Every category has a Nordic touch : vocal and instrumental music, metal, traditional and contemporary music, and jazz. Unlike here in the South, there are no fixed boundaries between musical languages in the North. Every musical genre finds its place between tradition and modernity, fusing into a fertile synergy without losing its own character. This is one of the cultural strengths of the Nordic countries.
Blog post of May 2018: For several years, this small international festival has been experimenting with new curatorial practices in a fierce and open way. The festival distinguishes itself by introducing co-curating, by politicising curatorship, and by rethinking the international. Baltic Circle hereby positions itself as a forerunner and is an ideal ground to visit with students who are themselves operating in the field of “expanding curation”. Three students, their tutor (Lara Staal, independent curator and publicist) and artistic director of DAS Theatre Barbara Van Lindt visited the festival and proposed some moments of exchange. In January we invited artistic director of the Festival Satu Herrala to visit us, and engage in a conversation where we reflected upon our visit (and already anticipated a next visit, in the autumn of 2018…)
Blog post of April 2018: Less than two months ago I moved from Tokyo to Brussels, straight into the heart of Europe and the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux’s great programming for 2018! We have our excellent previous Director Aleksi Malmberg to thank for carrying out the preparations for the start of the year, as well as our amazing team, with whom I now have the privilege of adding new initiatives and ideas to the programme.
Blog post of January 2018: “Last autumn, my colleague Timo Wright and I sat down for a cup of coffee in Helsinki’s city centre. Our gallery, Unknown Cargo, had not seen any major activities for about year now and we were both itching to start a new project. Timo had been toying with the idea of running some kind of residency programme for a while and brought it up again. The idea appealed to me immediately and that meeting became the beginning of Artist Residency Swap, or ARS. ‘ARS’ was used at first only as a working title, but we grew to like it so much that it became the final project name.”