Jenni Laiti is looking out for Sámi interests.
Racism, inequality and structural violence have been part of the everyday life of the Sámi people for hundreds of years. The Sámi are Europe’s only indigenous people, located in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, and suffer from being a minority. The Sámi aspire to live in harmony with nature, and pursue a sustainable relationship with the land they live on. A continued denial of rights to make decisions about the land they own as an indigenous population has led to hundreds of years of confrontation – a struggle which has recently begun to gather momentum.
Jenni Laiti grew up in Inari, and was bullied as a child. Yet it wasn’t until she was a teenager that she began to understand that the reason was her cultural heritage as a Sámi, an understanding that motivated her to do something to change that reality.
Laiti is currently the spokeswoman for Suohpanterror, a collective activist group representing Sámi interests. She lives in Jokkmokk, Sweden, where Suohpanterror has supported the Gállok Resistance Movement against a planned iron ore mine. The mine would impact the health of the land on which the Sámi population live and herd reindeer. The refusal of the Swedish government to build the mine has thus far brought the biggest tangible success to the Suohpanterror movement – a success which, Laiti informs, has empowered the movement to ask for change – self-determination, self-governance, and indigenous/Sámi rights.
What was it like growing up as a Sámi in Finland?
When I was a child in Inari, every one of us in our neighbourhood had a Sámi background, but everyone was Finnish. We were away from our traditional culture, speaking Finnish and living Finnish lives. When I was a child it was quite a negative thing to be a Sámi, it wasn’t appreciated. But nowadays when you see the children and youngsters it’s a positive thing to be Sámi, people appreciate their identities.
It was rough. I think all the Sámi have felt racism in society, or bullying because they are Sámi. You didn’t want to talk about being a Sámi, you just wanted to hide it. A lot of my friends, especially boys, have been beat up and got into fights because they are Sámi. But it’s not only the bullying and teasing at school and in the social environment, but the racism and hatred that has been driven for hundreds of years. It’s also structural racism like not having the right to use your own language and the right to your own culture.
As a child did you understand where the racism came from?
I didn’t understand what it was. Later on when I was 14 or 15 I started to realise. I guess when you’re a youngster you start to search who you are and where you’re coming from, and I have an older sister and brother who were taking their culture and language back, so when they were in that process, I was driven to that. My family is a political family, so we’ve been discussing these things.
What do you mean by taking their culture back?
My father is a Sámi and my mother is Finnish, and he didn’t speak Sámi to us. In Scandinavia after the Second World War, children were sent to boarding schools, and were prohibited to speak their own language. Because of what happened at the boarding schools, these children who became parents didn’t speak Sámi to their children. My father didn’t want to speak his mother tongue to me.
I speak Sámi now. When we didn’t speak Sámi at home, my sister and brother took back the language and started to study it. After a while I switched to speaking Sámi with everyone who spoke the language. Sámi language is still my mother language because it’s my indigenous language. And I’m speaking Sámi to my children.
What are the attitudes of the Sámi towards the Finnish majority?
I think many of us also identify ourselves as Finnish, because many of us have one Finnish parent or inheritance. When we’re talking about racism it’s a question about the majority and minority. Usually the ones who are in the minority don’t hate the majority, they just want to be heard and respected. We don’t hate the Finns, we just want to live in peace and be respected – in the same way that we are respecting them.
How does the Sámi minority differ from other minorities?
We are a minority but we are also indigenous people. We were the first who were here. The difference between an ethnic minority and indigenous people is that an ethnic minority is not connected to the land. They can live anywhere. Indigenous people have a territory that they belong to. We have a history with our land. We’ve been living traditionally in our home area for thousands of years.
How does Sámi culture differ from the culture of the majority in Finland?
Sámi culture is indigenous culture. Our culture is based upon the land and it’s all about the connection with the land and living. One of the core values of our culture is living in balance with the nature.
When we use the term indigenous it means we were here first and this land is ours. We still have the connection with the land. That’s the biggest difference when you think about the Finnish and the Sámi culture. When we lose that connection, we’ll become disconnected and we don’t love and respect, or listen to the land. Disconnectedness is a one of the biggest problems in human history, that is causing the destruction of this planet, that is causing climate change.
Moreover, another of the biggest problems of humanity is that we’re not taught to think. We don’t think. We want to destroy everything around us. And when everything is suffering around us, we’re suffering. When the natural world is destroyed it’s causing more disconnections, ecosystems become weaker and they disappear. We have to start to think if we want to survive. We have to start to respect. We cannot just sit and watch TV, or be active in social media. We have to change how we relate to the Earth.
I think this engagement is possible when we all remember that we belong to each other. We have to remember that we have to connect to each other. We feel powerless, and when we feel powerless we don’t want to take responsibility. But when we’re connected we love life and we don’t want to destroy it, because we don’t want to destroy the things we love. Finnish people also had the connection with the land, but quite a while ago.
How have the Finnish lost that connection?
The Finnish are, for example, living in big cities. Sámi people do that too, but when I’m talking about the Sami culture I mean the people living in the north, connected to the land.
Food is a good example, it tells a lot about our culture. Finnish people just go to the grocery store and that’s it. But the food is the base for the life. We collect berries. We do reindeer herding, we fish, it’s really important to us and our culture. Traditionally we use every part of the reindeer. We use nature as a source of living. It’s quite hard nowadays when our living areas are getting smaller and smaller because of the exploitation and land grabbing. And globalisation and climate change and everything. It’s a struggle to survive.
What needs to change for the Sámi culture to survive?
First and most importantly we as a people should have a self-government. We have the right to self-governance but the states – Finland and Norway and Russia – should implement the indigenous rights.
Indigenous rights are not special rights. They are human rights. They are compensation for the injustice that has been done in the past. You can’t change the past but you can make a better future.
Nordic countries have been colonising the Sámi area for the last 500 years, and they have been exploiting our land leaving emptiness behind, so it’s about a lot of wrongs that have been done in the past. The states are obligated to make a better future for us.
How is that change going to happen?
The land is not so large but the state owns the area where we live in Finland. Finland is only now in a process of ratifying ILO 169, a declaration about indigenous rights. It’s the first step Finland has to do. After it’s been ratified, they’ll have to start a process about the Sámi land rights issues. It’s been under discussion for many centuries but nothing has happened. This land is ours, not Finland’s.
What are the core ideas that are important for you about Sámi rights and culture?
The land is the base for everything. The question is all about the land. At the same time the land is the answer. We are made of the land. We live on the land. Land determines how to live in balance with the land and how to treat each other, and how to arrange ourselves politically. Our whole survival depends on the land. It’s not just the Sámi but the whole globe – everyone’s survival depends on the land. Land is not important just to us but for the whole of humanity.
When it comes to food – it is the land that sustains us and gives us food. We have responsibilities to it. We must take care of all the living, and we have to protect and respect the Earth. That’s also one of the core values of the Sámi culture. We want to live sustainably. We don’t want to destroy this. That would be a really stupid thing to do.
If the nature isn’t healthy no one survives. For me, a really important core value of the Sami culture is to protect our living environment and keep it healthy for the future generations, so there will be healthy environment for the future generations.
What’s missing from the dialogue between the Finnish majority and the Sámi?
Respect is one thing. It’s difficult to understand why one cannot respect or listen to the other. They are like companies, using the word ‘dialogue’, saying that they want to build a good dialogue. But it usually means a monologue, they hear us but they don’t listen to us. If Finland and the other Nordic countries would start to listen to us and respect us, and instead of the monologue that they call dialogue, they should actually have dialogue.
Why is the relationship between the Sámi and the Finnish majority such a sensitive topic?
I think for me, as an activist, it’s not so sensitive. It’s a topic we have to discuss. I want to raise this topic to the government.
It might be a sensitive issue for the Finnish government. One reason could be the land right issue. The state of Finland doesn’t want to give back our land, that’s the big issue. And of course there is a lot of racism towards us; we are not equal with the Finnish people.
How did you get involved with activism?
My personal political agenda is about indigenous rights not being recognised, and that Sámi rights are not on political agenda. We’re a small people, if we don’t fight who will? We have to have the political will to fight. The state has to have the political will to promote our rights. Resulting from hundreds of years of colonisation, my people are feeling powerless. That’s why I choose to challenge that power.
I’ve learned that there’s no change without protest. If we want to have some kind of change in our society we have to protest. For me, Suohpanterror art isn’t political art but it’s more political activism in the form of art. Art is my activism.
How does art become activism?
In Suohpanterror, it’s making posters which are published on Facebook and Instagram. It’s using social media as a tool to spread the word, in a new kind of activism, social media activism, visual activism. You reach a lot of people in the social media. It’s quite easy to share and like them.
What is Suohpanterror?
It is a Sámi collective artist group. Suohpanterror makes posters that are critical to society, and the structures of majority society. It’s a protest that happens on the border of art and activism.
Suohpanterror has social media activism, and has exhibitions. I, as a spokesperson, am travelling around and talking about issues what are important for us, and having workshops about art and activism and encouraging people to start to think for themselves. We want to mobilise everyone and get everyone active in this struggle, resistance, and protest.
The Sámi have been politically active from the ‘60s, but the states haven’t been listening. That’s why Suohpanterror has chosen this way to be active and make political change. It’s something new to make political art. Sámi artists began to be political in the ‘70s. Suohpanterror started in Facebook in 2012.
Why are a lot of your members anonymous?
We’re still quite small. We don’t want to talk about the people behind the movement. Suohpanterror is criticising society, so it’s a lot of sensitive issues that we don’t want to be personalised.
What has Suohpanterror as an activist group achieved so far?
In Sweden we’ve been protesting against mining plans in Gállok, Jokkmokk municipality, and achieved a lot in one year. The regional government just dismissed the Jokkmokk Iron Mines Enviromental Assesment Report. The Gállok Resistance Movement is growing and getting bigger and bigger. No more mining. No more land grabbings. We want to live sustainably; we want to have a better future.
The states have been ignoring the Sámi people and issues for so long, but now we’re bringing issues to the national level, and being heard through the art. Our people are thriving and we’re powerful now – we’re quite many artists making political art.
We’ve done a lot in the short term. We are lifting our people’s spirits. I hope that our pictures will continue to reach a lot of people and that they will start to think.
What is the ideal situation in your opinion?
The main goal is self-determination and land rights, then we can get self governance. To live as a free people in the future. The other goal is to live ecologically, in balance with the Earth and to protect it. That we, as a people, could live with self determination, and could self determine our own life as a free people, in a sustainable way.
We have the inherent right to be free in our own land, we have the inherent right to self-determination. Freedom is essential to the survival of all peoples. If a people are not free to determine their own future, then they cannot expect to survive as a distinct society.