The Sami feminist struggle

2014-12-01 08:08

The Sami feminist struggle was in focus on several occasions at the gender research conference g14 – Challenging Power in Umeå, Sweden. Researchers and artists gathered under the heading 'Life and Death – 1010 Years of Sami Feminist Struggle' to discuss Sami experiences in a gender perspective. One conclusion reached was that the postcolonial feminism in Sweden should include and learn more about Sami experiences.

‘The Sami people offer an almost overly explicit field for intersectional studies. Issues of gender, race/ethnicity, class, time, body and place are intertwined in Sami experiences,’ said Hillevi Ganetz, professor in gender studies and moderator of the discussion.

Studies on whiteness norms and postcolonial feminisms are gaining ground in academia. However, gender research focusing on Sami experiences remains in short supply.

Ongoing aggressive colonisation

‘Most researchers who have studied the Sami people, for example racial biologists, are not Sami themselves. We, the Sami people, both in and outside academia, need to reclaim the power over how we are defined,’ said May-Britt Öhman, Sami activist and researcher at the Centre for Gender Research, Uppsala University.

’Although there is indeed some gender research focusing on the Sami people, the field is practically invisible. And there are no clear academic platforms for critical and qualitative research on indigenous peoples, where studies on the Sami and their land can be carried out by Sami scholars with Sami perspectives,’ she added.

By means of feminist technoscience and critical indigenous studies, Öhman wants to challenge the view of science as objective and bring attention to the ongoing colonisation of the Sami region. Originally, she said, she did not want to write about hydropower exploitation in Sweden. Instead she turned her attention to Tanzania. The reason for this has to do with silence and shame.

‘Lule River, which I have studied, is heavily exploited for hydropower. We have lost so much, people don’t talk about it – it’s a trauma surrounded by silence. Feminist technoscience enables me to talk about the colonialism that’s going on in Sweden.’

‘The mines are leaking poison, people die on regulating reservoirs. The reindeer have to find new paths or be moved, dry river beds are causing problems. The military is using reindeer pastures for their manoeuvres. The dams held by the big mining and smelting company Boliden are leaching toxins and are also robbing the reindeer herders of their pastures. Sami land is subject to aggressive colonisation where the land, water, air and people are being exploited.’

‘It’s about survival’

Öhman referred to Elsa Laula Renberg (1877-1931), a Sami feminist activist who has played an important role in the Sami struggle.

‘Elsa Laula urged the Sami to take charge of the dissemination of knowledge and their own lives – a message worth repeating. We Sami must reclaim the power over how we are defined. A lot of the Sami feminist struggle is still, as in Elsa Laula’s days, about survival, being able to live off the land, developing the Sami culture – it’s really about being able to keep existing. It’s about reclaiming the Sami history and resisting the attempts to be driven away,’ said Öhman.

‘The struggle is also about dealing with deep personal and shared traumas from the colonisation – the past and the current. It would be great if we could put this part behind us – and if it could be clear to everybody. Unfortunately we’re not there yet,’ Öhman finished.

‘Scientific racism doesn’t hurt physically’

Katarina Pirak Sikku is an artist and has studied the evaluations of the Sami people conducted at the Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology in the first half of the 20th century. She has reviewed archived material and interviewed individuals who were photographed and assessed by scientists at the Institute. Pirak Sikku has for example taken pictures of herself using the scientists’ measuring instruments. She has assessed her skin colour and head size and calculated her ‘values’ based on the matrices that were used in the field of scientific racism. The pictures became a degree project at Umeå Academy of Fine Arts in 2005. After finishing the degree project, she thought she was done with the material. However, she eventually realised that she had enough material for a whole lifetime of research.

‘I keep asking myself what it is in scientific racism that hurts so much. I’ve tested it on myself and, no, those instruments don’t hurt physically. There’s something else about it.’

The research has always been both private and personal. It turned out that the measuring instruments once belonged to a racial biologist who worked in the Swedish province of Lapland in 1923 – the same year Pirak Sikku’s own father-in-law was evaluated. She has traced the scientists’ footsteps using for example claims for travel expense reimbursements. It turned out that the scientists stayed in their subjects’ homes and used their cots for their work, which gives a new understanding of how the assessments were made. It has previously been thought that they set up their own camps in Sami territories.

Pirak Sikku tells the story about how she once visited a close friend and saw a picture of the friend’s grandmother. She immediately realised that she had seen the grandmother before.

‘I just couldn’t tell my friend I had seen pictures of her grandmother’s naked body in the archives,’ she says. ‘At first I was outraged but then I became filled with sadness and shame.’


Footnote: The gender research conference g14 – Challenging Power was arranged in Umeå, Sweden, 26–28 November 2014 by the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, the Swedish Association for Gender Studies and Umeå Centre for Gender Studies in cooperation with the County Administrative Board of Västerbotten and the City of Umeå.

The session also benefitted from the participation of Gunilla Larsson, PhD in archaeology at Uppsala University, Ellacarin Blind, cultural secretary at the National Association of Swedish Sami and the musicians Sara Helén Persson and Sara Ajnnak, who sang a Sami joik.

Author Ulrika Helldén. Translation: Debbie Axlid
The Sami people reside in Sweden, Norway and Finland and on the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Their exact number is unknown since they have not been systematically counted. Their official symbol is a Sami indigenous flag, which was first presented in 1986. The flag symbolises the sun, the moon, water and land. The Sami also have their own anthem. The Sami National Day falls on 6 February every year. The Sami Parliament is both a publically elected parliament and a Swedish state agency. It consists of 31 publically elected members and a full-time chairperson. The election is held 19 May every four years. Over 8000 Sami are registered to vote. The Sami Parliament is one of the public agencies included in the project Gender Mainstreaming in Government Agencies, within which the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research provides support to the 18 Swedish state agencies that have been commissioned by the central government to work with gender mainstreaming.
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