Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Stjernøya – Who Has the Right to the Land ?

The Saami tend to argue with each other a lot if one is to believe the news.

Last year reindeer herding Saami who send their herds to the isle of Stjernøya during the summers have decided to go to court, supported by ILO169, in order to reclaim the land. The problem, however, is that in ‘reclaiming’ the island – where they already have grazing rights – they are stripping the resident Sea Saami of their rights to an island where they have lived the year around for centuries as the Sea Saami, in stark contrast to reindeer herding Saami because of Norway’s definition of Saaminess are neglected the same rights as reindeer herders.

This as fishing isn’t something which only Saami have been doing – a statement which in itself erases a history of forced deportations, confiscation of reindeer herds and so on and so forth which forced many Saami to become fishers, hunters or farmers.

Identity then is an interesting thing when it comes to who is and isn’t given support by a state’s interpretation of ILO169 definition of indigeneity. Homi K. Bhabha once wrote that ‘what does need to be questioned […] is the mode of representation of otherness’ (The Location of Culture, 1994). When it comes to the way Western media has depicted the Saami as a homogenous group of nomads  engaged in reindeer husbandry – and nomads have always been considered a threat by colonial powers, as they successfully transcend and ignore national borders, attaching their culture to many rather than one specific place – this is especially true. Much like the term ‘Native American’ or ‘First Nations’, which encompasses and homogenizes over 500 different cultures throughout the Americas, the term ‘Saami’ both works as a way to empower the Saami as a collective, but, simultaneously, as a way to erase differences between different Saami groups throughout Sápmi.

Even the name Sápmi as the accepted name of the land which traditionally belongs to the Saami is an example of how the Saami have been tarred with the same brush by colonialism; as a South Saami ‘my’ land is Sæbmie, yet in order to talk about it, I am expected to use the North Saami word for the land within an academic discourse.

But this is not meant to be an opportunity for me to complain about the endangered state of a language which was stolen from me and treated like something to be exterminated by the Swedish state, but rather a discussion about what happens when an indigenous group becomes homogenized and thus a victim to not only prejudice and discrimination from the outside in, but just as likely from the inside out. Within the Saami community, this is perhaps best simplified with the sometimes massive rift that exist between reindeer herding Saami and members of the Saami community who don’t follow the way of life which by the Scandinavian states have been used to define Saaminess.

This might sound controversial, but in many ways ILO169, which now is at the root of several conflicts over land rights throughout Sápmi have been written in a way which, while meant to support indigenous people, simultaneously excludes anyone which does not fit a very strict reading of indigeneity. As an example – ILO169 grants indigenous peoples land rights, but, as a consequence, according to a neo-colonial Norwegian definition of the Saami, only reindeer herding Saami can truly use ILO169 to claim back lands that have been stolen from them, but in doing so, all other Saami communities are ignored and erased from the discourse.

What is happening today in places like the isle of Stjernøya is a classic example of what Deleuze would refer to as territorialisation; supported by a closed reading of identity which is based on a false, Western colonial exotification of the Saami, members of reindeer herding communities are now given the right to reappropriate parts of Sápmi, which may have belonged to other groups of Saami that have never practiced reindeer husbandry. This is rather shocking, as reindeer husbandry in many ways is a fairly new thing to the Saami; until the 15th century the Saami were mainly nomadic hunter-gatherers, it is only from this century and onwards that reindeer herding became something which could truly be seen as one part of Saaminess, an identity which reaches back some 10,000 years.

The fact that 600 years are used to define a culture which has developed in many diverse ways throughout history for more than ten millennia is a rather confusing thing. And yet, rather than being a unique phenomenon, it is a common thing throughout the world; The Lakota did not truly become nomadic until the introduction of the horse in the Americas, the Maasai did not arrive in Kenya until the late 18th century and the list goes on.

Personally, when it comes to inter-Saami conflicts which have been created by a nation state’s false interpretation of Saaminess, I would like to see the Saami come together as a collective of diverse groups with different traditions who chose to employ ILO169 as a tool of inclusion rather than exclusion; Geir Wulff, editor of Sápmi’s largest newspaper Ságat, suggested something which, considering the fact that ILO169 now is used to strip certain groups of Saami of their rights in order to give them to other groups of Saami, actually made sense – rather than excluding parts of the Saami, the two groups should come together in order to create a new community, called Stjernøya Siida, which would give every part of the diverse cultures that are lumped together as one – the Saami – the right to govern the island together, keeping both reindeer herders and Sea Saami happy.


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