Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Yearly Archives: 2013


There is no such thing as ‘neutral’ research

To argue that a specific study is neutral or objective is to subscribe to an idea of the world where all knowledge is finite and our understanding of knowledge as a concept can be more or less wrong based on how well we manage to find the right lens to use when we analyse the world.

This in itself is preposterous as it not only fails to take into account e.g. the collective and cultural accountabilities at play in Indigenous research, but mainly because no matter how emancipatory a research claims to be – ranging from Marxist to feminist research – it most often finds itself rooted in different levels of privilege, where a white, Western and, feminism aside, patriarchal world view is taken for granted and thus declared to be ‘correct’.

As Indigenous researchers we cannot afford to let ourselves get trapped in a web of rigid research epistomologies which to this day continue to benefit the Western status quo, no matter how liberating and non-oppressive they claim to be. We can and should only talk about ourselves in this sense; we cannot talk with authority about anything but our own culture and our own lived experiences. Knowledge is not easily defined and thus seeking to break it down and authoritatively claim that it can be explained with research methodologies that have effectively kept Indigenous people outside academia for centuries is to do ourselves a great injustice.

Talking about ourselves, thereby challenging the status quo which has researched us without our permission to a point where there arguably should not be anything more to research, is highly political whether we want it to be so or not. It becomes a decolonial protest where we locate ourselves within our communities and first and foremost reclaim our own voices which have been stolen and corrupted by those who have researched us because of our ‘Otherness’ and nothing else.

As an Indigenous person, locating myself not just physically but spiritually, culturally and generationally is crucial in understanding not only myself but also in making sense of why I do any research at all. As Indigenous people we face a world where we constantly have to justify who we are, both to outsiders and members of our own communities. Our entire being becomes politicised so that even the mere act of coughing in ‘the wrong place’ during a lecture is interpreted as a huge political statement by the status quo. As Indigenous researchers we are not afforded a space where what we do is construed as neutral, so to work with methodologies that seek to discover neutral knowledge should be the last thing on our list of priorities.

Non-indigenous laws that have been used to eradicate us and control us still play huge roles in Indigenous peoples lives and thus it becomes vital to dispute any and all forms of research which claims to have the ultimate answer to any question relating to ourselves.


The Indigene in Academia

I’ve noted two things over the past couple of years; firstly, being Indigenous and working on something that can be construed as stemming from one’s Indigeneity within the academic sphere one is never not political. It doesn’t matter what one does, as soon as one enters a room, be it physically or in a more metaphorical sense, i.e. through a paper, one’s every action is interpreted as being a political form of resistance or conformity against or with the status quo.

Secondly, Western academia is very keen to use Indigenous bodies as figure heads for new, innovative research projects which, when examined further, rather than challenging established research methodologies uses the Indigene as a smoke screen to keep on furthering the cause of the Ivory Tower. In these projects one becomes, to use the words of Linda Tuhiwai Smith, ‘the indigenous researcher’ and not ‘an Indigenous researcher’.

This is complicated for a number of various reasons. On one hand Indigenous research cannot be approached in the same ways as Western research, mainly because there are crucial questions of cultural accountability at play that cannot be ignored by the researcher. We constantly have to ask ourselves if what we are doing is truly helping our communities; the credo being ‘for the community, by the community and with the community’. Adding to this complexity, the fundamental difference between Western academia’s and most Indigenous forms of knowledge transmission – i.e. a written system vs. several entirely different oral ones – makes Indigenous research far more complex than what it might seem on paper.

Indigenous research cannot simply be interpreted as ‘research done by a token Indigenous person’. Indigenous research is resistance, it is decolonisation in the very heart of Western society. And at the same time while being fiercely political, it is a deeply complex process of walking back and forth between different types of knowledge transmission that most often do not work in even remotely similar ways just in order to negotiate a place where two opposing methods of research can come together whilst benefitting the community of the Indigenous researcher first and foremost.

And adding to the list of things in the aforementioned metaphorical Pandora’s Box of Indigenous research, every language manages to conceptualise the world in slightly different ways, and if anything, the language of Western Academia is far from that of any Indigenous tradition of passing on wisdom.

The Uppsala Library Archives 2013

I saw the ghost of Herman Lundborg
googling our genocide yesterday;
a pale professor ordering a photo of our
abused great grandmothers —
for science.

“naked women captured
by the colonial gaze
speaks to me
on an aesthetic level”, he said,

“the mixing of blood is a crime
that has to be studied
in detail”, he said

“the erasure of names in order to
present pictures of children’s genitalia to the public
is justified”, he said

as he clicked his way through
the generational wounds of our people.

“lest you should ever forget your
prescribed roles
as silenced Others”.


We are the generation that pulls our ancestors
from the depths to find ourselves again.

The youngest one is six years old;
after the hare escapes the yoiked shot-gun
she tells me that she’s found a pair of reindeer boots
once worn by her father, then hidden away
until the day she started each day with a vuelie.

On the other side of the table, the ten-year-old
writes down every word I say
and repeats it three times, determined to not forget
what has been denied her by the state –
then she excuses herself
– this broken language we barely share,
echoing like gun-shots through the room.

There’s a cold bitterness in the joke
when we try to figure out how much fabric
we’re going to need for 52 skopmehkh –
“let’s begin this day with a re-enactment of our history”
this tape measurer
fastened like a cursed echo of the past
around the skulls of our children.

Being an indigenous scholar: Why do I bother?

As an indigenous scholar, reading aged academic articles about my own people is both frustrating and soul destroying, but at the same time one of the most important tools in the act of challenging current misconceptions about indigeneity. By being able to address inaccuracies through the same medium as the oppressor, by being able to quote, analyse and disprove academics whose opinions have been and continue to be accepted as gospel truth because of said academics’ status within the field, one has a far better chance to fight prejudice that has been touted off as “scientific research” by the Ivory Tower than one would otherwise have.

Academia as a field is intrinsically prejudiced, self-centered and the latest top research within the humanities is far more often characterised by being decades behind current discussions amongst the very peoples academia loves to study. Most people within the humanities know this, but simultaneously the academic status quo has spent a ridiculous amount of resources to silence the Other, in order to not have to accept responsibility for the role it has played in the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples and other minorities around the world. By ignoring research projects originating within an indigenous community that aim to benefit the community itself in order to instead prioritise a continued outsider-perspective on indigeneity, indigenous peoples continue to be coded as research objects lacking agency, rather than as researchers with competence originating from an educational tradition that lies outwith the restrictive confides of Western education.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith once wrote that “research is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary” and this to me is one of the main reasons as to why it is so important to me as an indigenous scholar to do my best to decolonise the field in which I work, not only by refuting the amount of ridiculous inaccuracies currently passed off as truths by academics, but also by opening up a closed field to indigenous, non-western methods of knowledge transmission. I want to do anything that works to stop the ongoing contribution by majority academics to the colonialist imperialism of academia; I wish to challenge and change the field from within. I refuse to see more books being written about my people that do not originate from members of my own people, and I live by the creed that anything that has to do with indigeneity has to come from the community itself, be for the community itself and work with the community itself.

Vieledit Álggoálmmuga Riektáv: Indigenous Resistance against Mining in Sábme and Culture as a Decolonial Tool

Skärmavbild 2013-08-19 kl. 21.11.57

[image: a map showing the location of Gállok]

Over the last couple of months, Gállok – an area of huge cultural importance to the indigenous reindeer herding communities Sirges and Jåhkågasska, situated close to Jåhkkåmåhke on Lule Saami lands – has become the physical base of an on-going protest against the British mining company Beowulf and its Swedish counterpart Jokkmokk Iron Mines AB. I have written about the protest before, here and here, but in this text I wish to also give a historical context as well as comment on the ongoing decolonisation of Gállok, rather than just giving a mere update as to what has happened since police officers for the first time unsuccessfully used brute force to evict non-violent activists from the area. In short the protest could be described as a cultural movement spear-headed by Saami artists who, supported by Saami and non-indigenous Swedish activists alike, have set up a peaceful decolonial camp together. Over time this camp has grown from a collection of one or two traditional Saami tents to a pan-Saami IRL and on-line resistance movement, which combines a road blockade with a clever use of music, art and language as effective weapons in the fight against foreign companies that seek to colonise indigenous lands in Sweden.

But before we take a more detailed look at how different forms of cultural activism have been employed in Gállok in present times to keep the resistance movement alive as well as expand it, we have to look into how Saami land rights have been and continue to be ignored by the Swedish government. I would argue that it is only by seeing how a long history of still on-going colonialism has led to this situation that we can fully understand the severity of these protests.

Since time immemorial the Saami and their ancestors have been resident in an area which stretches from the Russian Kola Peninsula in the east across northern Finland, Sweden and Norway down to Idre in central Sweden and Røros in Norway to the west, and archaeological finds from the north of Norway and Sweden show that this presence dates back as far as 10,000 years. However, it was not, judging from historical records, until the early 9th century that the actual colonisation of Saami territories by foreign states began. Back then it is said that an earl, acting on behalf of the English king – ironically our oldest as well as our newest colonisers share the same nationality – was living in Troms, Norway and forcing the indigenous Saami to pay taxes to England. Similar stories tell of Icelandic Vikings who used to attack the Norwegian coast back in the 13th century. Most sources indicate that any actual attempts by colonisers to settle on Saami territories before the 16th century were sporadic, and in 1534 the Swedish king Gustav Vasa stated that the Saami were the owners of their ancestral homelands but liable to pay taxes to the Swedish state, regardless of whether or not they were already taxed by Norway.

Taxes varied throughout history for a number of reasons, but it is worth mentioning that until 1695 Saami men and women were taxed on an individual basis, despite being members of a communal economy, and the Swedish queen Kristina used Saami citizens who were unable to pay taxes as slaves in her silver mine Nasa when she despite cruel forms of torture failed to employ as many Saami as needed to carry out the troublesome task of transporting the silver from the mine to the coast. In a document from 1655, one example of how Saami men were tortured is given;

[We tied the [Saami protesters] with a pair of reins whereupon we threw them into the ice-cold river multiple times, dragging them underwater so that the water would stream out of their mouths when they surfaced, as is the preferred method [of torture] among miners][Bromé, 1923, my translation]

The large-scale Swedish colonisation of Saami territories truly began during the 17th century, and ever since, the Saami have been forced to accept intrusions on their lands and the thefts of their property by Swedish settlers. Legally speaking, however, the Saami were still seen as the actual owners of their lands well into 1885, as long as these lands were considered to be inhabited – as of 1693 all uninhabited areas as defined by the government were considered to be the property of the state – as can be seen in a document from 1885 when it was stated that

[The [Saami] were the ones who first settled the northernmost expanses of our nation. The legal right of the original owner to the land must undoubtedly be considered as stronger than the right to the same by settlers that arrived later [than the Saami]] [quoted from Eivind Torp, my translation]

However, as much as these documents exist and Saami land rights have been enshrined in a number of Swedish laws, it is paramount to remember that the Swedish government refuses to acknowledge that the Swedish state is founded on the territories of two people – that of Swedish and Saami citizens alike – and thus any land rights possessed by the Saami are easily ignored by the state who considers all parts of Sweden as being Swedish land only.  Coupled with a number of discriminatory laws following the 1885 parliamentary meeting which discussed the Lapp Codicil from 1751, the majority of Saami lost their land rights as well as the right to engage in reindeer husbandry, whereas others, primarily North Saami, were forcibly evicted from their grazing lands in northernmost Sweden to South Saami lands following another parliament decision in 1913 and later 1919.

Nowadays the outright refusal to acknowledge Saami land rights which started back in the late 19th century is in turn emphasised by Sweden’s refusal to ratify both the Nordic Saami Convention and ILO169, two contemporary international agreements that would enshrine Saami land rights in the Swedish constitution and safe-guard the right to free and prior consultation before intrusions on Saami lands were allowed to happen. Rather depressingly it is my opinion that the Swedish state has no intentions to ratify any documents whatsoever that would force the Swedish government to accept its own status as a settler state. As such, what little Saami land rights that do exist in Sweden today are effectively restricted to the part of Sweden affected by reindeer herding, and in theory only the part of said area that has been used as year-round grazing areas for an uninterrupted period of time extending more than three generations back.

Having said this, however, it is worth mentioning that according to current Swedish laws, the right to engage in reindeer husbandry is seen as a basic human right afforded to members of Saami reindeer herding communities by the Swedish state – although the size of these communities and the right to membership in the same has been restricted by the state in – and any area that is seen as being of national interest to the reindeer herding industry should be protected from intrusions by industries and companies according to the Swedish Environmental Code.

According to chapter 3 § 5,

 Land and water areas that are important for reindeer husbandry, commercial fishing or aquaculture shall, to the extent possible, be protected against measures that may significantly interfere with the operation of these industries.

Areas that are of national interest for the purposes of reindeer husbandry or commercial fishing shall be protected against measures referred to in the first paragraph.

How effective this law is in protecting Saami lands is debatable, however. So far no Saami community has ever been successful in using the Swedish Environmental Code against intrusions on their lands. The hope is that it will prove an effective tool in Gállok, but history tells us otherwise.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that mining is seen as an industry of national importance by the Swedish state, and what makes Gállok unique in relation to the Swedish Environmental Code is that the area has been deemed of national interest both for reindeer husbandry and for mining by the Mining Inspectorate of Sweden. This in turn, I would argue, is what has caused the current situation in Gállok, which could only be described as a stand-off between reindeer herders who face a total annihilation of their culture and a vulture in the shape of an English mining company that, thanks to the laxest mining laws in the world, only pay 0,2% of its incomes in taxes to the Swedish state and thus do not think twice about destroying the land in Gállok. To this day, only one Swedish political party has suggested that this tax should be higher and the current destruction of northern Sweden by foreign companies for nought is largely treated as a non-issue by members of the Swedish Parliament.

In 1635 a Swedish politician said that ‘Lapland is our West India’, declaring it a prime colony of the Swedish state and nothing much has happened since in order to change politicians opinions of the northern parts of Sweden.

So why is Gállok different and why is it so important that we take an interest in what to most people would seem like nothing more than a remote piece of land in an even more remote no-mans-land?

Protests against mining corporations are common all over the world, but despite the destructive impact mining has had on Saami and non-indigenous Swedes alike in northern Sweden, most non-Saami people have remained remarkably silent until fairly recently. A number of dedicated Saami have long fought against Beowulf Mining in places like Raavrhjohke on South Saami lands and the Saami reindeer herding communities in Gállok have been fighting against Beowulf Mining since 2006, but it is only now that these protests have turned into a large peaceful movement that has attracted supporters from all over Sábme and other Saami territories as well as other parts of the world to the decolonial camp in Gállok.

Knowing how rarely Saami protests attract support from outsiders, it’s perhaps surprising that the protest which began in July is still growing, but seen as a part of something bigger, Gállok becomes a Saami response to other indigenous protests around the world, such as the Dongria Khond’s protests in India or the “Idle No More” movement in Canada and the United States. Keeping this in mind, the protest in Gállok does not only seem easier to understand but perhaps more importantly in fact even expected. Over the last couple of years indigenous peoples around the world have become a lot harder to ignore, and the fact that the Swedish Saami have had a parliament for the past twenty years which in turn was founded as a result of another Saami protest back in the 1970’s means that both the cultural and political power to mobilise resistance against human rights violations is stronger and more prominent than ever.

But the resistance against the mining plans has not been welcomed with open arms by a number of people in the area who are convinced the mine will bring jobs to Jåhkåmåhkke, and as a result they have spent a considerable amount of time and money on discrediting the protest. Recently the CEO of Jokkmokk Iron Mines AB went on record, claiming that all supporters of the decolonial camp had to be insane. Earlier he had described the camp as being full of odd characters that weren’t originally from Jåhkåmåhkke. His words are in no way sensational but rather common-place in cases like Gállok. In fact, negative responses from colonisers to the current protest in Gállok are both important and telling of how settlers have tried to and still seek to control indigenous land and minds all over the world. As an attempt to discredit the protest, settlers have often claimed that no “real” Saami have spoken out against the mining company, based on the presence of non-indigenous Swedish activists at the camp, but this is of course not true. Members of Jåhkågasska and Sirges are present in the area on a daily basis and they have travelled to London in the past to protest the mining project since it was first proposed in 2006.

What could be said however is that the attempt to invalidate the protest is symptomatical of settler discourses with regards to the concept of indigeneity; by creating a very exclusive understanding of what an “authentic Saami” should look like – e.g. a gapta-wearing reindeer herder rather than a single mum working as a journalist – everyone who does not fit this description is dismissed by the majority. Derogatory terms like “pavement Saami”, used by supporters of the mining project is used exactly because they strip non-reindeer herding Saami of their indigeneity, simply because their self identification does not live up to the stereotype which the settler sees before him when he thinks of “a Saami person”. As such the term “pavement Saami” is a clear example of how Settler-defined concepts of authenticity become destructive tools which rather than giving indigenous people a voice to freely shape in order to represent themselves, is giving them a restrictive role to fit into which is loaded with colonial ideas of a correct way of being indigenous. To this day, an indigenous person is only truly comprehensible to the settler if they conform to the settler’s ideas of indigeneity, and this in turn leads to the complete and utter lack of respect and compassion shown towards indigenous communities living outside of the physical and psychological wilderness which defines the settler’s indigenous caricature.

To clarify, indigenous objects, in this case  Saami men and women, are only visible to and accepted by the settler discourse when they don the physical attributes the neo-colonial discourse has ascribed them with, and in the case of Gállok this has been an often used excuse to justify the police brutality carried out towards the protesters.

So how is it that the Gállok revolution is not showing any signs of slowing down in the near future, when colonial powers do their utmost to force the protesters to leave? I would argue that the main answer to this question lies in the ways in which the protest has been organised, not as a violent uprising, but as a cultural movement which draws its power from language, art and music. The major shift from being seen as a minor protest that could be easily dismissed by mainstream media lies in the transformation of Camp Gállok from being primarily a road blockade to becoming a centre for music and other forms of cultural expressions that decolonises an area belonging to the Lule Saami through its establishment of Swedish Saami musicians, artists and poets as contemporary, political and powerful voices on a global stage.

Spivak stated that the Subaltern cannot speak, but in places like Gállok, the Subaltern has ceased to try to speak on the terms of settlers and instead they have created a platform based on indigenous values and beliefs that not only challenges settler discourses but raises above them.

A clear example of this is Mimmi Märak’s spoken poetry recital “What Local People – Poesi för ett Gruvfritt Kallak“, in which she challenges exactly the attitudes which have forced this decolonial camp into existence;

“The Swedish state is taking the food whenever it so damn pleases them,
but it scurries away when storms are gathering,
getting oh so cocky when a Saami person does something “cultural”,
but shouting woe and eternal damnation when we’ve supposedly disturbed the eco system
only because we’re the only ones who dare to discuss the impact of predators [on our lands]
and though 200 years have gone by, the Lapp is still hated with the same reverence as yesterday
and you do not understand that you teach us to hate you when you disregard our ancestral homelands

[Mimmi Märak, my translation]

In her poem, Mimmi critiques the tendency of the majority to treat Saami people as exotic figureheads at cultural events, but to completely ignore our human rights. But rather than to accept the expected role of indigenous peoples as victims, Mimmi’s poem is full of agency, telling those who listen that enough is enough.


[image: Henrik Blind. The picture shows a sign in Lule Saami which translates as follows: “No mining / Reindeer Herding Area/ Respect Indigenous Rights”]

Another example of how Camp Gállok is using art and language as resistance is the recent posting of signs in Lule Saami, calling for people to respect indigenous rights. These signs do not only give Lule Saami a natural space in the public sphere, but perhaps most importantly, by using the indigenous language of the area, rather than that of the settler, the message becomes much more powerful. Languages are intimately connected with the places where they have been spoken, and to physically reattach an endangered language that has been almost killed by colonialism to its ancestral homelands is to infuse the land with a part of its very soul. It is an act of great spiritual, cultural and psychological importance and every Lule Saami word spoken or written in Gállok is a defiant act of decolonisation that strengthens the resistance movement and chips away at the foundation of the colonial oppressors. Seeing an endangered language being used as a decolonial tool is both empowering and vital for it to survive, and in relation to Gállok, it is a poignant reminder that we as Saami refuse to let us become silenced and bull-dozed over by those who do not respect our human rights.

A cultural revolution is and will always be the way forward for indigenous resistance. Colonial powers know how to deal with armed protesters, but when the protesters use language, music, art and poetry as their ammunition, the settler starts to crumble. And what has started to crumble will eventually disappear.

Sámeednam sámijda.

When you dishonour my flag, you dishonour my people

Police officer in Gállok, standing on the Saami flag which has been torn down and thrown on the ground.

The first time I saw this picture it made me sad, but in these times of colonial oppression supported by a state that sells off the land it settled and stole from the Saami for a share amounting to 1 ‰ of what a mine earns in a year, I cannot afford to be sad, and instead this picture, showing a police officer stomping on the flag of my mother’s people, fills me with rage.

People often seem to forget that we as a people have been and still are treated as second hand citizens, sub-human exotic Others to flaunt at international events where Swedish doesn’t quite cut it if you like. What’s currently going on in Gállok on Lule Saami territories and in Raavrhjohke on South Saami lands emphasises this fact: our rights are not important enough to be listened to, and it is far more important to support a foreign capitalist company that will strip-mine our lands and leave breadcrumbs if that to the local people as a ‘thank you’, and by sending in police officers that use brute force to tear decolonial activists away from their posts, than to respect the wishes of the people who have used this land since time immemorial.

Those who support the mine tend to refer to those of us who don’t as anything from terrorists to pavement Saami – a term used to discredit our right to feel outrage at the destruction of our lands simply because we do not work as reindeer herders – and perhaps most insulting of all as occupants – the true occupants being Settlers and the mining company of course – but what they all fail to realise is that no matter what they call us, we won’t stop fighting for our lands.

The fight in Gállok, as well as the one in Raavrhjohke is often referred to as minor protests, but this is simply not true. The resistance is growing and we’re nearing a point of no return where we, as a people, will rise up in unison and proclaim that enough is enough. Supporters of the mine are scared stiff of the prospect of anti-mining protesters in traditional Saami clothes being forced to leave the place by police, as this would attract media’s attention to the injustices in the area, but if that’s what it takes before the general public reacts, i.e. Saami men and women having their gåptoeh destroyed by police officers dragging them through the mud and dirt in order to make them leave Gállok, then so be it.

Our maadtoe belongs to our ancestors and our children, no amount of quick-fixes in the shape of mines that offer a limited number of jobs for a short period of time stretching no further than 20 years into the future will change our minds. We can stand losing a gapta in this fight, we cannot stand losing our lands.