Wednesday, 21 April 2010

To each its own

However elusive the filiation of the Finns to the Sámi, however disputed the influence, over millenaries, of the ones on the others' language and culture -- and vice versa, direct experience gives little credit to the preconceived notion that Sámi are simply Northern Finns.

The confusion is less likely to occur among Finns, and among Sámi to an even lesser degree, than in foreign eyes, especially when these are focusing on Finland. It is hard for someone who does not belong to either of these groups to discuss the insider's perspective, but from the outside, the Sámi could as well be these countryside Finns with the funny costumes and old traditions. Lapland, after all, is where Santa Claus resides (no matter what sort of mythological beast he used to be in the Yule times) with his flying reindeer; Sámi are herding reindeer, Lapland is Finnish, so Sámi are Finns. Hardly anyone in the West is safe from the misconceptions born of our perception of the world through groups, and through nations in particular; for the well-read mind, it is still hard to think Sápmi as a land across lands.

Finns undoubtedly acknowledge their Northern roots through their folklore, and their close genetic linkage was proven; but from a broader perspective of civilization, in their everyday being and practices, Sámi and Finns are definitely not the same people.

I have mentioned from day one how obvious the difference in the idea of organization was, from Helsinki to Kautokeino; these first impressions were confirmed and explained in the following days. There is no word for stable in Sámi language, but sayings such as a year is not another year's brother, our lecturers explained. The very idea of stability is foreign to the nomadic Sámi people, used to the most instable conditions, varying weather from a year to the next, complex layers of snow and thinning ice in the spring season.
This is an everyday reality at the Sámi College: while students accepted to the Foreign Reporting module received months in advance a detailed day-by-day schedule, our programme here seems fairly improvised. An outing to the reindeer herd might happen today, tomorrow, or later. We ended up a couple times left all on our own in the middle of the day, for we were unable to find our lecturer gone for lunch or somewhere else. Nothing bad, just different.

One thing in particular embodies for me the essential difference between Sámi and Finns: sauna. I did not know what to expect sauna-wise when leaving Helsinki, where most houses and almost all student accommodation have access to one. From what I have been told over the years, or so it is presented by today's Finns, Finnish civilization appears to have developed around the sauna. It was the first part to be built in a new house; the place where women gave birth and where corpses were washed before the funeral; a temple, where a ritual of purification takes place, beyond a mere physical cleaning. The surprising resistance of Finnish soldiers against the Soviet army during the Winter War is partly attributed to their use of sauna, which they still build today wherever they go. The prominence of sauna echoes down to our days (or, again, is given more emphasis today than it used to attract in the past, which does not undermine its relevance for Finnish identity, quite the opposite) and as far as Washington, DC.

But sauna does not belong to Sámi culture.

Upon arrival, I hoped for a sauna in the house we live in. We were in the North, after all.
There was none at home, but one at the university. Disappointingly, it turned out to be a mere gym sauna, built for a radically different purpose than a Finnish sauna, and much in line with the use of sauna in countries without sauna tradition (that is, all but Finland).

A gym sauna designed any-old-how is better than nothing, and I have already abused of its slightly too dry, too steady but nonetheless comforting heat. It is a shame that its bizarre architecture distracts me from complete relaxation: What is the stove doing right behind the door? How much better would it be if the upper bench was closer to the ceiling? Shouldn't they have hired a competent Finnish sauna designer?...

As a matter of fact, in Kautokeino, saunas are not in individual houses (as it is common in Finnish cities), neither do they exist as a separate but adjacent building (which is the custom in the old mökki). It may be different on the other side of the Finnish border, but my knowledge on the subject is limited. Sámi people are nomadic, albeit certain categories within their group settled long ago as fishermen and farmers and were forced in that way into Norwegianization, and it is even less so now, in a strict sense, as all have a house to live in. Still, Sámi-ness is not Finnishness: Sámi identity was not built around the sauna and the particular understanding of home it carries, and the social structures as well as the very sustainability of their culture, their survival, did not depend on this shelter against the bitter cold. Their houses are no more of a home than the whole land surrounding them.

However trivial sauna may seem, its near-absence in Norwegian Sápmi (it must be noted that there is no sauna tradition in Sweden or Norway either) underlines that the Sámi, in spite of their probable common roots with Finns sometime in history, in spite of the often common fate of individuals from the two groups, which may make them appear as one in the eyes of outsiders, are not Finns, or at least not only. Their cultural specificity, nearly essential in the way it relates to the old understanding of the world, is not only expressed as the symbols they used to make up a particular identity on the Norwegian and international stage, but also experienced actively in the very way they are.

Comment is free and input is welcome. Please correct my wrongs regarding Finnishness and sauna and Sámi culture, if any...


In other news, I refuse to start working on the essay due next Friday and strive to find inventive ways to push it away (such as providing evidence on these pages that my brain is constantly processing whatever comes its way into social sciences exploitable material, aye); days fly by, though, as the light's stretch outpaces actual time. I have been lately stuck home reading the unbelievably thrilling course related to the aforementioned essay ("Part 2: The analytical schemes of the invention of the "-ism" lexicon," I kid you not) and trying to keep up the pace with all the Sámi music I have pillaged from the library of the university.

We will leave on Thursday for a road trip to Karasjok, Inari, probably Alta, and perhaps other places during the weekend. Keep posted.

Update, April 27: Road trip postponed sine die, or at least until after we meet the Sámi ambassadors, which should happen on the 17th of May, or 18th, or 19th, or else. We concluded today's course with a visit to the local newspaper, Ávvir, and we might go out to the herd again, soon, someday between today and Monday. Or else. Who knows...

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