Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Indigeneity and Authenticity: A Saami perspective

To many Swedes a Saami is a reindeer herding person with a colourful dress and a teepee in their backyard and nothing else. Not only is this wrong – obviously – it also ignores the vast differences between different sections of the pan-Saami community. Today, North Saami has become more or less the accepted norm of what counts as Saami, at least in Sweden, meaning that news, books and so on and so forth are primarily if not always produced in North Saami, while other Saami languages and cultures are forced to take a step back and silently accept the fact that ‘you’ve got something, sure, you might not be North Saami, but don’t you dare talk about Saami diversity as well when we’ve finally given you all this’.

All this can be translated as detrimental stereotypes, suppressed cultural diversity, internal hatred and language loss.

South Saami, Ubmejen Saami, Pite Saami as well as virtually all Finnish and Russian Saami languages are dying and the fact that the Saami have been both farmers, fishermen and hunter-gatherers is rarely if ever something people seems to think about.

To be Saami is to a Swede to be the North Saami TV presenter from Ođđasat or the ‘complaining, traditionally dressed dudes who live in tents next to their reindeer’, end of, which in turn brings me to what among the South Saami is referred to as maadth-Saemie or maadth-almetjh.

Maadth-Saemie translates as something along the lines of ‘authentic, original, far more indigenous Saami than just a Saami from anywhere’ and sort of sums up the current conflict between South and North Saami people in Westrobothnia, particularly in Dearna where South Saami reindeer herders saw their lands taken over by North Saami ‘incomers’ who in turn were forced to move there by the state, way back in the 1930’s.

By attaching maadth to the name ‘Saami’, these people are emphasising both the cultural diversity of the Saami and challenging the Swedish government’s restrictive laws that stripped displaced, non-reindeer herding Saami of their basic human rights. Maadth– relates back both to the language and the aboriginal rights to the land and looks down upon incomers with, as they see it, no real rights to said land.

This is also one of the reasons why there are so many conflicts between land owners and reindeer herders in Saebmie (i.e. the South Saami part of Sápmi) – many land owners and foresters are descendants of the South Saami who were displaced by the incoming North Saami reindeer herders who were given the right to use the South Saami land, while the South Saami simultaneously to a large part were stripped of said aboriginal rights.

And as the reindeer herding law makes it clear that only reindeer herders have an aboriginal right to hunting and fishing in these areas, ignoring the fact that it forced some reindeer herders to migrate and others to give up their cultural identity and aboriginal rights, the problem remains an open and often poked at wound in Saebmie, which in turn is further appropriated by non-Saami land owners who want the same land rights as the (reindeer herding) Saami.

There are examples of Saami reindeer herding communities in traditionally South Saami areas, where none of the people who are allowed to be involved in reindeer husbandry is South Saami and any conflict between reindeer herders and people who live off the land as farmers and foresters in places like Dearna goes back to this fundamental point; i.e. who has the real right to the land in the area, who is a member of the maadth-almetjh and who isn’t.

But maadth-Saemie is also used to exclude people who have lost virtually everything, i.e. the language, land and visual culture of the Saami – to be Saami is one thing, to be maadth-Saemie is to be authentic as well.

Personally I find the term to be somewhat complicated – yes, it highlights a very real problem; does Saami really only translate as ‘reindeer herding’, regardless of whether the person who works as a herder comes from another place and practices a related but different form of reindeer herding, but it also excludes far too many people from ever wanting to recognise their own ‘Saaminess’.

I don’t know, I live away from Saebmie and I’ve never been truly affected by the Dearna and Nordmaalenke conflicts, but I think it’s important to highlight them and the diversity found in Sápmi. We’re not a Guovddegeaiddnu-gákti wearing stereotype, we’re something more and should be allowed to be something more as well.

Being Saami should not be something that the governments of our states get to define and put down in print, it should be something that the Saami themselves get to define.

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