All photos by: Helga West. Please do not use them without a permission.
For a long time I have wanted to write an essay on the history of objectification of the Saami.
Every time I’m about to start writing, I start grappling with the theme: Where should I start? What should I claim? Should I write about my own experiences rather than my sister’s, for instance?
Time goes on and the more I think about it, the more complex the topic seems. If I do write about it, don’t I, too, indirectly strengthen the romantic image of the Saami?
Scandinavian eugenics and an unexpected email
One day at university I needed to check some basics about Scandinavian eugenics where the Swedish scientists were pioneering.
The Saami were a special interest of race biology that based on racial hierarchy among the peoples and the Saami were bottom of the hierarchy with their exotically considered bodies and behavior (Marttinen 2015).
(Later it has been proved that there are no different human races.)
I finished reading up an article thinking: “Luckily we are done with this s***.”
The next day I receive an email. It’s from a photographer who asks my help in finding her a Saami family where she could rent a room in order to document their Saami life for a few months.
I still find no words to describe my astonishment caused by the request.
Sápmi – an unlimited resource for inspiration
What’s the Saami appeal that makes so many want to grab a piece of a Saami or Sápmi?
Sápmi in Northern Europe, my dear reader, has been for centuries a resource land of data, collected artifacts and cultural imagery, including photography (Lehtola 2018).
In addition to being a resource field, Saamiland is a real home for many Saami: for those who live there and for many diaspora Saami who have moved away from the traditional Saami area, like myself.
Seeing the image of myself in plastic dolls
I search traces and imagery of my own people. In Helsinki I visit secondhand stores in order to trace them. I’m drawn to shelves with abandoned souvenirs.
What do I see?
I see an “Orient” woman with seductive smile, a Lolita-type blonde with a straw hat and a folksy costume (a Dutch?), a serious looking Asian man with a decorative outfit who is about to do a martial art move if his legs were not bound together.
I see there myself, too. A doll wearing an outfit that resembles a gákti, a traditional Saami dress.
I look at the doll’s sad face and I realize that, indeed, this is the shelf where we belong to: next to an Orient and various kinds of sex symbols.
I feel sympathy toward the misinterpreted plastic Saami doll. “Take care of yourself”, I say to it. But it remains silent.
Borealism – a good intended failure in historical encounters with the Saami
Edward Said claimed in his seminal book Orientalism that Western scholars have depicted “The East”, its people, cultures and societies for centuries in the same, stereotypical way by producing an inaccurate cultural representation of the Eastern world (Said 1978).
According to Said, these patronizing representations or images usually depict the “Orient” as wild, untamed, irrational, hot-tempered – unlike a Westerner who is rational, civilized and someone who can control his temper.
Professor of theology Carl Reinhold Bråkenhielm has pointed out how Christian traditions marginalized the Saami spirituality and, interestingly, he compares the situation to Said’s theory by suggesting the term Borealism to depict the failure how Christian churches encountered with the Saami. (Bråkenhielm 2011).
With Borealism he means the failed attempt to see otherness and likeness of the Saami world view.
The historical attitude towards the Saami, as to other indigenous peoples, is that they have been portrayed as noble (today: aggressive) savages who need to be domesticated.
Saaminess – a great peculiarity
Many don’t think, however, that domestication of the Saami is a problem but a great business!
In 2018 we had a president election in my native Finland. The president candidates were interviewed in Oulu and the journalists asked about their opinions on how to enhance the Saami rights.
A conservative right-wing candidate Laura Huhtasaari (Finns Party) clearly hadn’t read Said at university when she replied:
“Indeed, it’s true that we have such indigenous (Saami) culture that is also a touristy asset for us. It’s great to have such a peculiarity here.” (See the clip in Finnish here.)
Many corrected her by saying that the Saami are not circus animals but indigenous people with their respected rights.
A slippery slope of indigenous branding
Let me just say that there is a fine line between objectification and branding.
I claim that the Saami are one of the best branded indigenous groups whose activism in the 1970s plays an important role when shaping the global indigenous movement.
Ever since and way before have the Saami voiced themselves in political venues.
To be exact, there is a non-political venue for a Saami: the whole world with its surroundings are a venue for political negotiations.
The Saami are everything but silenced victims but despite their skills in negotiations they have lost many fights.
With their struggles the Saami have invented and occupied new platforms in order to get their messages heard globally which can further result in, in my view, fostering objectification and fascination around the Saami cultures.
Even pop culture is not immune for the Saami appeal. If you don’t believe it, check the latest Frozen 2 by Disney (see the official trailer here).
Branding is a double-edged sword.
On the other hand, it’s a great tool for getting one’s voice heard but on the other hand, it may also lead to a situation where a “branded” figure finds herself in existential and spiritual alienation.
Alienation comes to the picture when people find themselves as maintainers of the representations of their culture.
In other words: they are stuck.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming the Saami for their own objectification. Nor Disney nor anybody.
I just wanted to write an awkward essay on how the Saami are being exoticized, erotized and merchandized and show some fragmentary imagery from the history and the present moment.
Weirdly, I feel much freer now.
Bråkenhielm, Carl Reinhold (2011): Varför har det varit svårt för kyrkan att integrera naturfolkens andliga erfarenheter? Svenska kyrkan: Rapport från Ságastallamat, en kon-ferens om samerna och Svenska kyrkan, i Kiruna den 11-13 oktober 2011.
Marttinen Terry-Lee Marie (2015) Scandinavian Anthropology, Eugenics, and the Post-Colonial Geneticization of Saami Culture. ACTA historiae medicinae, stomatologiae, pharmaciae, medicinae veterinariae 34/1.
Said, Edward (1978) Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.