Assistant Professor Pirjo Kirstiina Virtanen believes that the role of a victim does not help indigenous people, and that everyone benefits when we understand difference.

Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen has only had the chance to unpack a few of her books in her new office in the Forestry Building. For now, the shelves are lined with the likes of Kuna Art and Shamanism, Saamentutkimus tänään, Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia, Perspectivas econômicas da Amazônia and New World of Indigenous Resistance.

The recently appointed assistant professor of indigenous studies has spent her first week handling practical matters, meeting people and going through her list of duties. The University of Helsinki is both her alma mater and the base for her many projects. After touring Ljubljana, Paris and Amazonia, Virtanen finally has a more permanent base in this office.

Trail blazer

The assistant professorship in indigenous studies is the first of its kind in Finland, but far from unique on the international arena, as universities in Norway, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and Australia have similar positions. In Finland, research in the area has largely focused on Sami studies, which is available with different emphases at the universities of Helsinki, Oulu and Rovaniemi.

Virtanen is a member in a network which has now reached its goal – putting a study programme in indigenous studies into the curriculum of the University of Helsinki.

– Our network was established in 2008, and it promotes indigenous studies while engaging in active debate in the field. The discipline is new and lacks solid self-criticism and an established status. In 2011 we arranged a more ambitious seminar, which resulted in the book Alkuperäiskansat tämän päivän maailmassa a few years later. The preparation of the new structure of Master’s studies at the Faculty of Arts happened to coincide conveniently with our goals.

The assistant professorship is part of the University's tenure track system. There are still challenges ahead. The assistant professor must reach certain goals and criteria, and her publications, external funding as well as supervision and teaching work are being monitored. Promoting the field and moving it forward are not the least of the challenges.

– I must take my time before making major decisions, Virtanen states calmly.

Multidisciplinary strength

Indigenous studies is one of the three multidisciplinary minor study modules available for Master's degree students. As such it suits students of any field. The focus is not on the indigenous people alone. Instead, the issues are broader: art as an instrument of politics, the impact of environmental change, human rights law issues, the dichotomous language of medicine, the power dynamics of western science, research ethics, history, and temporality.

Virtanen believes that cooperation across disciplines is definitely a strength, and she hopes to see many students from different campuses in the programme.

– A multidisciplinary approach is a touchstone for indigenous studies. It helps us see things from a new perspective and to examine them critically. Concepts always have a history, and language is political. But we can unravel preconceived notions.

"Concepts always have a history, and language is political."

The minor subject can be fairly liberally compiled from courses in different disciplines. The scope is 25 credits, but it is possible for students to choose a single course in the area they find the most interesting.

Courses in indigenous studies have been available for a year now, but the assistant professorship funded by a Kone Foundation grant means that practices can be established and the discipline profile defined. In addition, Sami studies has offered a multidisciplinary lecture series on indigenous peoples for years, as the Sami are the only indigenous people in Finland.

Virtanen also teaches some of the courses herself and plans on arranging reading groups and several series of lectures. Indigenous studies will also be present at the University's opening carnival.

Researchers meet at the dig

The Brazilian Amazonia and its indigenous peoples are the focus of Virtanen’s field work. She wrote her dissertation on indigenous youth and how they enter adulthood in the intersection of traditions and new global influences. Virtanen’s research has been multidisciplinary in the most practical sense, as she has cooperated with archaeologists and linguists.

The cooperation hasn’t always been easy. Researchers from different parts of the academic community initially stood by their own perspectives and practices. Gradually, a mutual dialogue has developed, which is reflected in the research results. Input from linguistics and cultural research has helped decode the significance of archaeological discoveries.

 – Excavations made by an ancient civilization may first be thought to relate to fishery or turtle farming, but a cultural researcher can suggest an alternative interpretation: perhaps their real significance lies in cosmology and mythology, and symbolises drawing strength from a higher being.

Many indigenous people believe that animals and plants can produce language and speech alongside humans. This is why cooperation with linguists has been important. Virtanen points to two books:

– The textbook on the history and origin myths of the Manchinere people, written half in Portuguese and half in Machinere, was created with linguists in Brazil, as was the learning material on the language of the Apurinã people.

No to victimhood and colonialism

Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen does not want to present herself as the representative of all indigenous peoples and does not believe that these peoples should be seen as victims.

 – The underlying agenda of indigenous studies is a critical perspective. We will not rush to anyone’s rescue or idealise a fictional harmonious existence of indigenous people – instead, we seek close interaction.

The terms “researcher” and “anthropologist” have long been practically insults among indigenous people. It has also been difficult to attain research permits in some countries. However, research methods have developed, research ethics are given more consideration, and consequently researchers are increasingly becoming welcome visitors and important partners.

 – Research must also benefit the indigenous people themselves, Virtanen points out.

 –Placing the subjects of the research in the margins without sufficient health care or solutions for land questions is a direct continuation of colonialism. Research must offer them tools to find innovative solutions.

"We will not rush to anyone’s rescue or idealise a fictional harmonious existence of indigenous people."

Indigenous studies involves a great number of researchers with indigenous heritage, both in Finland and abroad. And more research is needed, as only research results can provide the foundation for the decisions indigenous peoples must make. The network of indigenous studies researchers have arranged several seminars in cooperation with indigenous researchers and activists.

– Nevertheless, we can’t equate indigenous studies and indigenous activism. Researchers can’t be restricted by their background, Virtanen states.

Past, present and future

Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen's to-do list is bursting with projects. All of them have to do with indigenous peoples in one way or another. Ecocriticism and issues relating to indigenous ontologies underlie most of them.

– For example, I’m involved in the Mind and Other project, which studies human interaction with phenomena considered ‘otherworldly’. I’m interested in how research and the act of knowing can constitute evidence, and I use the material I collected in Amazonia. I am also interested in the kind of learning that is not based on texts and reading but on doing, narrative and multi-sensory experience.

She is also working on an article on the ways indigenous people use language: how the language they use in the political arena differs from the one they use within their community, and how they employ art as a political instrument.

A few specific issues stirred the cultural researcher to stand up for indigenous people. Virtanen was touched by how clearly the critical perspective of indigenous studies highlights the dominance of men and Euro-American culture in Western science. Typically, it is white men whose voices are heard. In her course Decolonial methods and epistemic differences, Virtanen focuses specifically on the authorities and power relations in Euro-American science.

Virtanen was particularly influenced by the indigenous concepts of time she discovered in her field work.

– In Amazonia, the present encompasses the future and the past. People exist in relation to many other beings, human and non-human alike, and the past of these beings is also in the present.

Humans, their environment and this variety of beings form a collective, and time wraps around them in a multi-layered skein. Hierarchies unravel and humans cease to be the centre of everything.

Read more about indigenous studies and other modular minor subjects (in Finnish)