“The new Saami education provided by the University of Helsinki, introducing new approaches which view indigenous culture and language from within the culture, complements the old discipline of Lappish studies, in which the Saami are studied from the outside,” says Irma Seurujärvi-Kari, a Saami activist and Head Lecturer of Saame at the University of Helsinki.
The Urban Saami
Over one third of the present-day Saami live outside the Saami territory proper, that is, outside the northernmost municipalities of Lapland. It is estimated that almost 500 live in the Helsinki metropolitan area, whilst the total number of Saami in Finland is approximately 6,500.
The Saami culture is, like the cultures of other indigenous people, deeply rooted in the traditional means of living and a nature-oriented way of life – which has probably saved the Saami from assimilating into the majority population.
Is the Saami culture able to survive and develop in an urban environment?
“It seems so,” says Anna-Riitta Lindgren, Professor of Finnish Language from the University of Tromsø, Norway, who has studied the Saami people and their use of the Saame language.
“It was extremely difficult to find interviewees who had assimilated into the majority population or had negative feelings about their origins. The ones I found are mainly those who moved to Helsinki in the 1950s and ’60s. The younger generations have a positive view of their Saami identity and are not ashamed of their ethnicity.”
According to Lindgren, the Saami increasingly emphasise the notion of being a people among other peoples, representing a wide variety of occupations. One cannot equate the Saami with the traditional Saami way of life any longer.
Are there any distinctive features in the Saami living in Helsinki?
“In my opinion, the association-thrive within the metropolitan Saami community, such activities being hard to find among other expatriate Saami. On the other hand, we should also bear in mind that, for those Saami who have wished to assimilate into the majority population, Helsinki is the best place to be since one’s name does not reveal one’s roots. For example, the interviewees told that it’s much harder to conceal one’s origins in Rovaniemi.”
Academic quest for roots
Irja Seurujärvi-Kari, Head Lecturer of Saame at the University of Helsinki, Vice Chairperson of the City-Sámit and the Chairperson of the Sámediggi (the Saami Parliament) in Finland reminds us that Sápmi, the region where the Saami live, will remain the core area of the Saami culture. It is there where the language will continue to be spoken and the traditional way of life maintained. Sápmi extends over an extensive northern Fenno-Scandian area within four nations – Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia.
“Those of us who live elsewhere act as long-distance contacts; as a resource and as advocates. We can influence the decision-makers by promoting the status of the Saami language as the official language in the Saami municipalities. We also provide the Saami, in a concrete way, with a window and a channel to the outer world. It only takes a couple of hours to fly to the Central Europe from Helsinki, whereas in Lapland the journey to the nearest airport can easily take hours.”
The role of the City-Sámit as an identity maintainer is important. It provides a community in which the Saami can preserve or revive their own language and culture, or find out about their roots. Seurujärvi-Kari believes that the City-Sámit has contributed to the fact that the Saami culture is popular, even trendy, in the Helsinki metropolitan area today.
“It cannot be ignored that every year a number of students enrol in the Saami language and culture study programme to find out about their roots. Some may wonder whether they have the right to call themselves Saami if one of their grandparents is Saami. In my opinion, they have every right.”
In the city, the association has had to create different policies from those in the traditional Saami areas.
“External symbols are extremely important to us. The Saami flag and costume, concerts and parties show that we want to be identified as Saami and, thereby, challenge discrimination.”
Anna-Riitta Lindgren thinks that by demonstrating the strength of a small minority, the Saami have also opened doors for other groups: today, there are a dozen language minorities with more than one thousand members in Helsinki.
“Even compared internationally, the Saami can be described as an ‘advanced minority’: it has set out to achieve its goals peacefully but determinedly, step by step. I believe that the conspicuous status of the Saami in Helsinki has not only moulded the attitudes of the majority population, but also the attitudes in the media towards multicultural issues. It is finally understood that the right to one’s own language is one of the fundamental human rights.”