Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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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.

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1 Comment

  1. luranabrown says:

    This is amazing writing—pouring your story (in molten, vulnerable form) into a message structure that is educated, educational, political, and engagingly personal….and now it can be passed on as something of beauty and purpose.

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