Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Who is a settler?

While I prefer the term settler to many other terms, I find that using it often seems like a simplistic cop-out and that it at the same time, without further explanation, offers little or no insight into the intricate ways in which indigenous and non-indigenous people  -I’m thinking both on a local and a global level here – have formed relations with the lands they inhabit. I use it primarily as a negative word, and in most cases this is perfectly fine and valid, but as other far more eloquent people have already mentioned, decolonisation is a complicated, dirty business so thinking that people can be divided into two homogeneous groups of natives and settlers, where all natives have the same rights, and all settlers draw upon the same set of privileges just doesn’t work.

What is more, seeing as decolonisation is a global issue, it is naïve to approach it as a simplistic one-sided question of land-ownership where the answer and ways to reach that answer will be the same regardless of the peoples involved. It just won’t.

Just as an example, when I talk about decolonisation from a personal point of view, I’m not talking about exactly the same thing as indigenous peoples in the Americas or Australia are talking about when they talk about decolonisation, so it just gives that my use of terms like settler  has to be explained further in everything I write. And while I retain the right to not have to explain my own decolonial processes or offer cheat-sheets with definitions of the terms I use to others, it’s still worth remembering now and then that my understanding of these terms are coloured by my own surroundings and cultures.

Thus, from a Swedish Saami perspective it is worth noting that the Swedish government decided to label certain people settlers in order to slowly and silently erase us from the maps of the state that colonised us.

Through a number of laws, most notably the reindeer husbandry act of 1928, the Swedish state redefined the understanding of Saaminess to only pertain to people engaged in large-scale reindeer husbandry, and this was done to strip a large number of Saami people of their Indigeneity. This has now changed, but by using a law to superficially change the identity of fisher Saami, forest Saami and all Saami who were engaged in small-scale transhumance rather than reindeer husbandry and instead starting to refer to them as settlers alongside actual Swedish settlers from the south, the theft of Saami lands became justified. To this day this means that, in stark contrast to the practice in Norway, reindeer herding communities in Sweden are forced to hire academics and lawyers to prove to courts that they have lived and worked on their ancestral lands since time immemorial, instead of it being the other way round, i.e. that incoming mining companies and settler land owners have to prove that they didn’t steal the land from the Saami in the first place.

The thing is that only a minority of all Saami were engaged in large-scale reindeer husbandry, and especially in southern Saebmie, the ancestral lands of the South Saami, most reindeer herders had smaller herds and herded their reindeer differently from North Saami herders who in general had larger herds. What is remarkable here is that with the creation of the reindeer husbandry act in 1928, most South Saami reindeer herders were legally stripped of their Indigeneity, and instead North Saami reindeer herders were forcibly removed from their grazing lands by the state in order to resettle South Saami lands and take over the established ancestral land rights from de-Saamified South Saami reindeer herders.

To this day the legal right to herd reindeer is still based on what is referred to as ancient claims to an area, claims that have to date back to the time before Swedish colonisation of Saebmie. The right to be engaged in reindeer husbandry is moreover intricately linked to a person’s membership in a Saami reindeer husbandry community, and these communities are geographical and economical areas in which members have the right to fish, hunt, collect wood and herd reindeer. As an effect of colonialism less than 10% of all Saami hold membership in a Saami reindeer herding community and if it wasn’t for changes made to the law in the 70’s and 90’s, these Saami would still be treated as non-existing.

Anyway, what has this got to do with the term settler? Well, seeing as displaced North Saami reindeer herders have no actual ancient claims to South Saami lands but still are indigenous to Sweden as a whole, a large number of South Saami who lost their own rights when North Saami herders were given new homes in their communities use the term maadth-saemie to distinguish themselves from these incoming Saami, who are simply referred to as saemie. The prefix maadth then stresses the ancestral land rights belonging to South Saami men and women on our lands, and effectively denotes incoming Saami as a type of settler, something which has given rise to a number of still ongoing conflicts between different Saami groups in Saebmie, some of which are more than 75 years old. 

In other words, from a Swedish Saami perspective the term settler becomes somewhat tainted as it due to colonisation and a fierce homogenisation coupled with eugenics, all carried out by the Swedish state during the 19th and 20th century, has come to have a completely different meaning in Swedish Saami politics than in e.g. American indigenous decolonisation. A settler can mean both a Swedish coloniser, a Saami stripped of their family’s Indigeneity back in the early 20th century who has chosen to not reconnect with their Saami heritage and, when discussing reindeer herding rights, a Saami from another sub-group of the Pan-Saami community. Most often it naturally refers to Swedish settlers and other non-Saami incomers; when using settler to refer to mining companies, the terminology needs no further explanation, but it’s important to remember how complex it actually is.


As a term, decolonisation is a complicated concept to grasp. On one hand it signifies the very act of breaking free from a way of thinking, of conceptualising the world signified by oppressive power structures, that have benefited Western hegemony on behalf of the discrimination of indigenous peoples around the world. As such decolonisation represents the reclamation of lands, of languages and of the establishment of numerous self governing bodies working with and for an indigenous group from within. Decolonisation then manifests itself in a multitude of different shapes, ranging from something as simple as the reclamation of a parent’s name, to the establishment of immersion schools, to media channels operating on terms laid down by indigenous groups and ultimately to declare independence, both physically, mentally and symbolically from a colonial power.

On the other hand decolonisation as a term has been hijacked by scholars and politicians alike and is frequently used to institutionalise the actual process of decolonisation in terms laid down by an academic sphere ruled by the very hierarchies indigenous peoples seek to be decolonised from. Decolonisation is frequently represented as something academic, and often confused with a Western representation of postcolonialism, when the truth is that decolonisation is what happens in our communities on a daily basis, far away from an academic Ivory Tower. To settler communities, decolonisation is an interesting debate to be had over a glass of white w(h)ine, to the rest of the world, decolonisation is life. Decolonisation cannot thus, and should not be compared to any other human rights struggle, by doing so the point of decolonisation is lost to and appropriated not to mention distorted by the very discourse it seeks to challenge. To quote E. Tuck and K.W. Yang(1), ‘decoloni[s]ation is not a metaphor’.

It would, as far as I am concerned, perhaps be more apt to define this era of opposing interests as on one hand fiercely neo-colonial and on the other as decolonial, rather than postcolonial; postcolonial as a term is frequently misinterpreted as a closure, as people declaring colonialism as a thing of the past, whereas decolonisation suggests an ongoing struggle to destabilise a colonial hierarchy, which to this day seeks to take over indigenous lands and dehumanise its inhabitants by declaring any life-style which doesn’t conform to Western ideas of civilisation as belonging to the Stone Age. This becomes particularly true if we turn our eyes to impoverished indigenous communities, living in what to the settler seem like non-traditional communities. 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 wilderness which defines the settler’s indigenous caricature.

Two examples of this; when Canadian First Nations and Inuit communities asked for fairer prices on food and catastrophe support to prevent a disaster of epic proportions last winter, the majority of the Western world remained silent, and those who did speak opposed the ‘hand-outs’ as these seemed ‘contradictory to an indigenous life-style’; all this while completely neglecting to acknowledge the structures that have led to modern day indigenous communities being reliant on government support.

Similarly, in the last decade, when the G|ana and G||wi Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve started to voice their demands to have their right to live in their ancestral homelands respected by the Botswanan government who had forcibly evicted them to camps where starvation, AIDS and suicide constituted parts of everyday life, the government refused, and claimed that the Bushmen had ceased to be indigenous on account of a) living in a post-colonial nation and b) because they were using ‘modern tools and equipments’ alongside traditional hunting gears. When the Bushmen ceased to be comfortably indigenous in the sense that they could be considered indistinguishable from the flora and fauna of the state – this was the case in Australia until not all too long ago, and to this day, the Australian 2$ coin shows the profile of an aboriginal elder, surrounded by other ‘characteristic examples of Australia’s wild-life’ – the settler ceased to consider them indigenous in order to thus facilitate a further dehumanisation of them.

Today decolonisation has become one of the most important tools in an indigenous person’s survival kit. Western society has worked hard to disconnect us from our own communities by denying us a sense of history, language and belonging – this all forms parts of the colonial process which seeks to replace our identities with those of the settler – and we will remain colonised for as long as we internalise the rhetoric used by settlers to dehumanise and disarm us. In accepting identity criteria imposed by the settler government as having more power than our own communities’ definitions of community belonging, in not questioning the rhetoric which claims our children will be better off learning the settler language first or indeed instead of our indigenous languages, we internalise the colonisation process. By accepting colonial hierarchies as if not true, then at least as static and unchangeable, we allow them to destroy ourselves. By reclaiming that which was stolen from us, by opposing and disproving the discourse which paints us as unreal lest we remain powerless stereotypes of something that is now long gone and never truly existed in the first place, we empower our communities and lead them on a road to recovery.

The death of a language

Linguists usually estimate that 50% of all languages on the planet will be gone within the next hundred years, although far more depressing predictions exist; linguists like Dr. Devi claims that only 600 languages will be left come the end of the century and in an ever-growing, globalised world, he might not be too far away from the truth. Of India’s 850 languages, one dies every four months and of Australia’s remaining 150 indigenous languages, only 10% are passed on to future generations.

In losing an indigenous language, we use the knowledge invested in the land where it emerged; we may be able to talk about these things in other languages – this is not the point – but the accuracy and attention invested to detail which is lost when a language dies cannot be recreated in a different language. However, while losing a language may seem permanent, it is not. A language can always be revitalised.

Saying that e.g. the Saami have 300 words for snow – looking away from the flawed research behind said claim, as it fails to tell us which Saami language we’re talking about and how we got to said number – is irrelevant. What is relevant, however, is the fact that the detailed knowledge of snow found among the Saami and conceptualised through the language(s) spoken by them hold(s) invaluable culturally relevant information that not only confirms our identity, but also simplifies our life in the areas of the world where we’re resident.

But why should people care? Survival of the fittest, right?

As linguists we often emphasise the importance and normality of language change and as speakers of majority languages, the advantage of speaking English, Spanish or e.g. Hindi seems by far more valuable than speaking what to the majority seems like an obsolete language. The answer is not as straight-forward and simple as one would want it to be. Language functions both as a communicative tool – and as such any language should be enough – and as a cultural, historical and sociological vehicle – and as such the loss of a language equals the destruction of a unique way of conceptualising the world. The monoglot majority often fails to see language as anything but a communicative system – even though language cannot and should not be perceived as a purely referential tool – when the reality is that all forms of language is situated and thus related to the history and very core of a people. In short, this actually means that we as linguists need to look away from purely using descriptive linguistics to document languages and instead start to engage in interactional linguistics, where we among other things dare to realise that all speakers of endangered languages are multilingual and that treating them as monoglot just strengthens the feeling of their endangered languages as being inferior to a stronger majority language, i.e. one of the main reasons why their languages are dying in the first place. We need to start looking at language as a capital that should not be preserved in a pristine condition purely for the sake of keeping another language alive, but as something that should be preserved for and by a people so that they can place themselves in relation to others in an ever-expanding world.

We need to stop documenting languages ‘just because’ and start focusing on why we do it and how we facilitate intra-generational language transmission. We need to promote a fair, equal form of code-switching, where both the endangered and the majority language is treated as a capital worth preserving. A linguist’s dictionary is a great tool, but we need to make sure that we promote the use of the words in said dictionary in a natural setting as well.

We do not need more linguists who look at languages as something detached from their speakers.

In the promotion and maintenance of endangered languages women have an important part to play, and the capitalist, patriarchal society promoted by Western colonialism is in many ways one of the biggest killers of languages; by treating women as second-class citizens, we simultaneously paint their cultures, languages and traditions as inferior and by doing this, we risk creating a society where languages aren’t passed on to future generations. Thus the task of preserving endangered languages is intimately linked with strengthening and promoting women as well.

Languages are decisive in how we place ourselves in this world, they are our most important resource and they determine how we go about with our daily lives, meaning that when we lose our languages, we lose ourselves.

In other words, while people who do argue for ‘one’ world language may have a point – language is there to facilitate communication – their point is dwarfed by the very real effects of language loss, as a dead language represents the loss of cultural knowledge, ethnic diversity and human development.

In somewhat exaggerated terms, losing a language is like dropping a nuclear bomb on a national archive; the entire history, a sense of identity and culture is lost when a language leaves this planet and while our capitalist world has taught us that unless we can touch it, it’s barely worth mentioning, the loss of language signifies the greatest loss of human capital imaginable.

When we lose indigenous Amazonian languages, we lose the knowledge of plants, animals and trees in the area, when we lose Polynesian languages, we lose the knowledge of navigation, sea life and emigration in the Pacific and so on and so-forth.

Teagasgairean / Teachers

The teachers cut off their tongues
in the morning;
the language hanged
from their necks.

The graduate rendered silent; 
each belted child
another native word hidden
behind a layer of oppression.

Sgath na teagasgairean ar teangan
‘sa mhaidinn;
a’ chàinnt chrochta
air barr ar n-amhaich. 

An neach-ceuma na thost;
Bu gach clann shàraichte
facal dùthchasach eile na chaillte
fo fòirneart. 

Reviving endangered languages

I sometimes get people asking me to give them some kind of crash-course in language revitalisation. Flattering as it is to be considered knowledgeable enough to have anything worth saying on the matter, I regularly tend to ignore these messages as they all seem convinced that there’s bound to be an answer to the question that can be condensed into a catchy one-sentence slogan. The answer, however, is naturally too complex for anyone to be able to turn it into an on one hand authoritarian and on the other hand short message.

‘Talk the language’ or ‘use it’ seem like simple enough statements, but they’re devoid of context and do not explain why so many revitalisation projects actually fail. ‘Teach it in school’ is another catchy slogan that misunderstands the actual power of schools and the role they have often played in making a language endangered in the first place. As Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Ole Henrik Magga wrote back in 2003, ‘[…] schools alone cannot save languages, [but] schools can kill them more or less on their own’ .

However, without getting too detailed, I’m going to use this post to discuss the matter in far more detail than I’d otherwise do, and if long posts about endangered languages and revitalisation processes aren’t what you usually go for on a Monday evening, please feel free to scroll on by.

So, let’s start at the beginning then – I trust that only those of you who care about this are still reading – what makes a language endangered?

Almost 7000 languages are spoken in the world today, of these a mere handful have become global power languages with hundreds of millions of speakers, whereas the world’s average language, let’s call it Medianese, has between 5500 and 6000 speakers. Now, according to most linguists, Medianese has a slim chance of survival in today’s neo-colonial world;  come 2100, and between 50-95% of all languages on our planet will have died unless something drastic happens. Why is this the case? As I mentioned in an earlier post a while ago, a language becomes endangered when it loses power to another language because of colonialism, a strong belief in homogeneity and the perpetuation of lies about the advantage of globalism. A language with a relatively large number of speakers can be endangered, as is the case with the Celtic languages in the UK, whereas a small language can flourish if it has political, social and cultural power, as is the case with e.g. Icelandic in Iceland. 

Now, what about the distribution of languages around the world? From a linguistic point of view, Europe constitutes an area of language impoverishment, while simultaneously being home to some of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Only 3% of all languages originate from Europe, whereas 33% of all languages can be found in Asia. This has a number of reasons, but perhaps the most obvious one is the formation of nation states in Europe. By creating states, European monarchies relied on the eradication of differences between people in the areas they controlled and by emphasising an arbitrary allegiance to an invented nation state, promoted by a ‘common language’, most European states managed to make every language but the ones used by Europe’s governments endangered. This idea of nation states was carried over to other parts of the worlds, and is one of many reasons as to why all Native American languages are endangered today. 

Right then, now we know why languages become endangered, how do we go about if we want to bring them back? The most important thing here, which many people seem to forget, is that any revitalisation project has to be on the terms of the language community’s speakers, and that without a natural intergenerational language transmission process in place, any attempt to revitalise a language will be unsuccessful. This is not to say that lest a language is spoken at home, it cannot be revived, but in order for a language to be transferred from one generation to the other, it has to be used as a regular, daily medium of communication.  

There are a number of methods that work particularly well when it comes to passing on a language, the most effective one naturally being a natural use of the language at home, where children are encouraged to become active rather than passive users of a language. Other successful forms of revitalisation projects include the establishment of language nests – an idea from New Zealand’s indigenous people – also known as full immersion pre-schools, as well as the use of language mentors, i.e. native speakers that are assigned one student to whom they pass on the language and culture in a natural setting, be it at cultural events or over a cup of tea in a local coffee shop.

A language can also be passed on if it is used as the language of instruction in schools; whenever a language is turned into an object to be studied, rather than into a tool to be used in order to study something else, it has a slim chance of surviving in the long term. If, however, an endangered language is used in the history or maths class room, in other words in a natural setting, it will most likely be picked up and end up being used by children and teenagers that otherwise wouldn’t have spoken the language.

Now, this all seems fairly straight-forward, but far too often language revitalisation turns into little more than a failed attempt at keeping a dying language alive. Many people think of revitalisation as a Philosopher’s Stone, but use it wrong. Wanting to revitalise a language is simply not enough, believing in the powers of schools to pass on a language is equally misguided.

One of the main reasons as to why language revitalisation projects are unsuccessful is because far too many people believe that the necessary intergenerational transmission can be replaced with a weekly dose of a couple of hours dedicated to the studying of a language, when the truth is that this will never be successful, unless the language is used constantly around a child. Schools are seen as centres of power by endangered language communities, but cannot become that, lest the language is used as a tool of instruction.

Another problem is the general public’s all too big trust in linguists ability to revitalise a language; many people don’t think of language revitalisation as a community task, but far more as a task to be carried out by a select few for the sake of the community. This is misguided and often makes the very real contribution everyday speakers do to the survival of the language seem less useful. 

Moreover, to this day it is far more common to talk about an endangered language than to actually use it, and this is intensely problematic. When even the people the general public considers in charge of the revitalisation project fail to use the language in public, it will not, it cannot survive. The choice to talk about a language rather than to use it is often justified with the belief that to speak an endangered language among non-speakers would exclude them from the conversation, but by believing in this lie is to fall prey to the power structures that made the language endangered in the first place.

When a language is being revitalised, we don’t have the time or space to coddle the  people who speak the majority language and feel left out. 

Another thing that often leads to the failure of language revitalisation project is the general tendency to focus on an idealised past. No language is static and if we allow ourselves to fall prey to the idea of pure languages, the language will not survive. Languages change and it is by far more important to have a slightly different, yet living language, than a language that is perceived to be ‘purer’ but is ultimately a dead language.

Finally, if you truly want to revitalise a language, you must make it a way to live by giving it a natural place in all spheres of daily life, rather than by focusing on it as an object that has to be acquired or else. Making a language mandatory ignores the cultural and historical background that led to its current state of endangerment; it might be possible to pass on an endangered language to an outsider by using a traditional L2 learning approach, but it does not work in the long-term with members of the community who come to the language with a feeling of guilt, loss and more often than not anger.

Thoughts on Decolonisation

im maehtieh böörhkedh mov maadtoen veadtah
i can’t cut off the roots to my ancestral lands

Like so many others from small communities, I was raised in an abusive family, and growing up, I quickly learnt that remaining silent was an easy way to stay under the radar, but that the very same silence would ultimately drain you and leave you an empty shell. Those of you who know me might have gathered that I’ve never been good at staying silent and though I come from two small cultures more or less stripped of their respective voices, and I for a long time was taught to put everything that made me me behind, I sometimes feel as if I mastered the task of becoming a language sponge back then, purely to spite those people who tried to make me shut up and move on.

I refuse to remain silent.

You don’t move on when your people is the victim of a cultural genocide, you don’t move on when your people has had their tongues metaphorically cut out of their mouths and hung on the walls of colonial oppressors, you don’t just move on from a combination of generational traumas and bad childhood memories.

Their skulls are still kept in dusty university archives and their spirits are waiting for them to come home.

I guess some people like to use the term broken homes; my last memory, and now for some reason only memory of my biological father is one of him standing bent over my mother, trying to strangle her with a door-mat, whilst kicking her repeatedly. I was seven years at the time and haven’t seen the man ever since.

But the abuse aside – it didn’t stop when my father left and it only intensified when my stepdad took over – culturally speaking my family pretended that whatever you ignored wouldn’t affect you. Thus, for a long time, being Saami was something that warranted no discussion in my family, mostly because of my step-father who made it somewhat of a mission of his to mock my mother’s background on a regular basis, and each time she started to long for the place she’d been raised in, my home would turn into hell. Each migration to and from that which is our land, that which has been my mother’s people’s land for millennia, my step-father would abuse both my mother, my sister and me both physically and mentally, and so the journeys home would always seem like some demented horror movie gone wrong. The time he broke my mother’s nose when she wanted to move back to Saebmie, I decided that enough was enough and that regardless of how the rest of my family would react to my choice to openly identify as Saami, I would no longer be silent when people made fun of my people.

My connection with that which is maadtoe to me, my ancestral land and the traditions and cultural practices that rose from it when jubmele raised the world from the great flood in the beginning of all time, is what makes me Saami. As an effect of colonialism, I lack most stereotypical traits of a Saami; I do not herd reindeer, the state made it illegal for my ancestors to fish in the rivers we’d lived next to for millennia, and like most South Saami, I was not raised speaking South Saami. But despite the eugenics and racism that tried to exterminate my ancestors, I am still South Saami, and I’m still rooted in this land.

Im maehtieh böörkhedh mov maadtoen veadtah.

Thinking back, I am almost certain that it was the broken nose of my mother that marked the beginning of my own decolonisation, though I never thought of it as such back then as I certainly didn’t have the academic vocabulary I possess now. Every step I took to reconnect with both of my cultures from that moment on became important steps in a journey that has brought me to the place where I am today.

Decolonisation equals respecting and honouring our women; among the South Saami women have always been considered equal – we’re not talking about super women, there is no single Strong Woman as such – and in trying to challenge the patriarchal attitudes that have infested our community over the last 200 years, we grow stronger as a people.

My mother was a storyteller and a keeper of languages; she in turn had got her stories from her parents, and whenever my mother couldn’t take care of me, my grandparents would. Together they raised me to be an independent individual, and I often think back on the better days of my childhood and realise that I had a lot more freedom than most other children. It made me stronger, it protected me when I grew up and much of my sense of self stems from the cultural beliefs passed on to me by my mother and grandparents.

Decolonisation to me is not so much about a struggle for political power or some symbolic transfer of rights from settlers to us as it is about recognition of indigenous rights and coming to terms with one’s own identity. It is the very act of unlearning centuries of silently accepting colonial oppression and to speak out against the theft of our lands. Decolonisation to me is the embodiment of my people’s voice through music, poetry and art, it is the revitalisation of our language, it is a simple but powerful statement; we are still here, we are not invisible, we are the Subaltern who refuse to remain voiceless.

Decolonisation is my slow struggle to claw back the language and culture of my ancestors and by reclaiming my languages, I reclaim a bit of myself from the Swedish state that used eugenics and racist laws in order to try to permanently erase it from existence.

I have read a lot, and education has been my main focus for the greater part of my life. Despite this, I do not see decolonisation as an academic discipline, but as my life. Decolonisation is a process in which colonised people challenge their oppressors by and for themselves. There is no need or time to centre settlers in a decolonial movement. I guess whatever settler academics may have to say about colonialism is all valid and fine on some level, but their understanding of our lives is theoretical as opposed to lived, and thus largely useless. This does not mean that one shouldn’t read settler academics, on the contrary. My mother always said that in order to challenge someone you needed to speak their language, while standing firmly rooted in your own tongue. I took this as an encouragement to become a teacher, and ultimately a doctor, focusing on authenticity and indigeneity through the medium of art and literature. Both art and literature centres communication, and in doing so, they form the pillars of what I envision decolonisation to be.

When you’re indigenous or a member of a minority, everything you do becomes a political statement, but decolonisation refutes the idea that we as indigenous and/or POC have to constantly act in a way which benefits or even acknowledges the settler. We are rebuilding ourselves, and in doing so, we are denying settlers to define what it is that makes us who we are.

Decolonisation is of course something political as well, but I picture decolonisation to first and foremost be the resurgence of our cultures, where settler politics don’t have a role to play, at all, and decolonisation can only be successful when we start to listen to our own elders and women, who in many ways embody that which is our maadtoe in the first place.

We don’t need academics or politicians to tell us who we are.

Decolonisation is an ongoing process. To this day, I’m learning and I am eternally grateful to my teachers. The day I stop to learn, I will head for the mountains, find a cave and lay myself down to die.

Numhtie lim manne såårneme dam bïjre.