Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Anthropologists and Art

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Skuolfi by Lavvo Sámi Art and Nature

This post was written as a response to a comment on the photo above, which I posted on my personal blog a couple of days ago. I bought this figurine at the Saami market in Ubmeje last weekend, and what I thought of as a nice piece of art that I wanted to share with my readers what met with the following comment from an anthropology student I’ve never before interacted with:

I see this piece of art and see so many questions. With this art is there a description of its meanings or purposes? Sure it looks nice and could promote a good home atmosphere I suppose but by marketing this item without its proper cultural credits could add to a negative trope. I hold indigenous art under alot of question because it can be negative or positive not both in most cases. If a tribe seeks to be recognized. its culture and identity sould not be sacrificed for a few little coins.

At first, I was going to ignore this commentary, as it was characteristic of a first year anthropology student’s discourse, in other words full of theoretical words that the person in reality hasn’t quite grasped yet, but seeing as my main focus at the moment is on the idea of authenticity and representation in art and literature by indigenous peoples and minorities I couldn’t quite keep myself from responding.

And this is what I wrote;

I only just saw this commentary, and pardon my raised eyebrow, but as a Saami buying a piece of art from another Saami and then sharing it on-line because I happened to like it, I do not need some anthropology student lecturing me on the importance of cultural credits.

I vehemently oppose the idea that something produced by an indigenous artist has to be accompanied by a detailed explanation of its meaning and cultural significance to accommodate outsiders wishing to consume it. The fact that I haven’t provided you with a detailed explanation of the myths surrounding owls within my community, or a comparison of the same with those of the North Saami does not mean that I am not aware of them. It simply means that I do not think it is important to share said myths with people who don’t even know that the Saami isn’t a tribe.

What is more, the belief that a product produced by an indigenous artisan has to represent something intrinsically linked to the culture the artisan comes from in order to be considered truly indigenous is detrimental to indigenous self determination and our own definitions of identity and authenticity.

And finally, as I mentioned earlier, the Saami is not a tribe. The word Saami as such is a collective term denoting several different, but related peoples speaking related languages and sharing many similar cultural traits. As such we do not seek recognition from the state of what you denote as our tribality; we are already recognised as the indigenous people of Fenno-Scandinavia and the Russian Kola Peninsula – each state has different legal definitions, where we’re referred to as peoples, indigenous minorities etc – and what is more, our indigeneity is not dependent on state approval.

Ergo, if a Saami wants to make a tiny statue of a snowy owl, commonly found in Saebmie, said artist has no responsibility whatsoever to explain their choice to do so, or justify their art by referring to its cultural meaning. Making a statue of an animal as a Saami artisan and then selling it does in no way translate as a sacrifice of said person’s culture and identity. However, to imply that there is a right or a wrong way to be a Saami and represent Saaminess through the medium of art when one is not Saami equals an act of active silencing of an indigenous voice. In other words, it constitutes the exotification of the Other, in that it presupposes that to be indigenous, one has to be different from the majority and constantly have a different, more exotic reason behind one’s wish to produce art than a member of the majority community.

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