By Sari Väyrynen. Translated by Richard Foley. Photo by Arto Liiti.

The everyday life of indigenous peoples in the Arctic is a meeting of timeless cultures and a changing world. The encounters do not always go all that smoothly.

Tranquillity, expanses of twilit snow, feisty plants toughing it out, reindeer and polar bears traversing harsh terrain – yes, this is the Arctic.

Except that it is not.

The Arctic is also bustling cities and unexploited natural resources; industrial plants, military areas, and tourist resorts; melting glaciers, thawing shipping channels and a climate that is warming twice as fast as that of the rest of the world. And it is home to four million people, one in ten of whom is an indigenous person.

The indigenous peoples of the Arctic – forty different peoples, including the Inuit of North America and Greenland, the Saami of northern Finland, Sweden and Norway and northwest Russia, and the Nenets of northern Russia – find themselves at once on the edge of the earth and in the middle of global changes.

The peoples have inhabited these sparsely populated northern climes for millennia and maintained – wholly or at least in part – their own languages, traditions and natural livelihoods. Yet, at the same time, they have had to come to terms with the realities of a changing world: global fluctuations in the economy, international and national politics, and global changes in the environment.

“Maintaining one’s own culture in a changing world is not easy, but it is possible”, to quote the reassuring words of Leena Heinämäki, researcher at the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law.

Heinämäki notes that there has been an enormous change in attitude in recent decades. Many international human rights and other instruments, such as the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the ILO Convention on Indigenous Peoples, safeguard the position of indigenous peoples and their right to culture – provided that the states they live in have committed themselves to observing the terms of these agreements.

“Many indigenous peoples have also organised politically. But they have to get their voices heard in decision making better than is the case today. They are now on the same starting line with a large number of civic and special-interest organisations,” Heinämäki notes.

In her doctoral thesis, defended in the spring, Heinämäki proposes that the indigenous peoples’ influence in international decision making be improved by adopting the model used by the Arctic Council, a cooperative body of the eight Arctic states.

“Indigenous peoples have a permanent right of participation in all of the organs of the Council and they may present statements and put forward proposals. The model would improve the peoples’ opportunities to have a say in affairs pertaining to them, but would not impinge states’ right to decide on matters within their territory,” Heinämäki continues.

Improved rights of participation would also empower indigenous peoples. Once objects of decisions, they would become subjects who would have the power to decide on their own affairs.

At least in principle that is. Locally, even in western democracies, the Arctic indigenous peoples would still have to actively defend many of the rights accorded them in international agreements. One example is the right to use land for the traditional livelihoods of reindeer herding, fishing and hunting.

The indigenous peoples are not the only ones interested in their land. It is estimated that a full ten per cent of the untapped oil reserves and twenty-five per cent of the gas reserves in the world are located in the Arctic. The region accounts for ten per cent of the world’s fish catch; the forest industry has it eye on northern timber; and mining interests have set their sights on the region’s minerals. Nature in the Arctic intrigues travellers, and tourism is a crucial sector of the economy in northern Finland. Where business thrives, it produces revenue for states and societies, as well as work and income for local residents.

But whose needs win out? And who gets to decide?

Juha Joona, one of Leena Heinämäki’s colleagues, has done research on the land and water rights of the indigenous population of Finnish Lapland. Joona notes that in Finland, for example, the law says that land belongs to its owner of the land and that it is the owner who decides how the land is used.

“In northern Lapland, the home district of the Finnish Sami, most of the land is owned by the state of Finland, and land use has been debated – sometimes vehemently – by interests representing forestry, tourism, recreation and reindeer husbandry. The legal point of departure, however, is that national legislation has provided essentially no protection for the indigenous population where land use is concerned”, Joona observes.

Of the Arctic states, only Norway and Denmark have ratified ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous Peoples, which obligates states to safeguard indigenous peoples’ ownership of the lands that they have traditionally inhabited as well as the use of the natural resources there. In practice, indigenous peoples in the Arctic are dependent on what the states they live in choose to do, although some peoples have a measure of self-government allowing them to decide on certain matters independently.

“At best indigenous peoples in the Arctic can try to influence decision making and lodge complaints with the bodies in charge of monitoring compliance with international human rights and other agreements. The threshold for doing so is quite high, however, and in the case of Finland, for instance, the results have been very modest indeed,” Joona points out.

Traditional ways of life are also being threatened by global environmental changes. The warming climate in the Arctic and changing natural conditions might jeopardise indigenous peoples’ opportunities to pursue their cultures: among other things, these changes will hamper the movement of nomadic peoples on the tundra, threaten traditional game animals with extinction and make it harder for reindeer to find food.

Faced with the risks of climate change, the Arctic indigenous peoples have resorted to appeals to international human rights bodies. Five years ago, the Inuit filed a complaint against the United States in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding that country’s air pollution. In the case of global environmental issues, the liability of individual states is extremely difficult to prove, and indeed the Court could not find a sufficient connection between climate change and the human rights of the Inuit.

“This is one reason why indigenous peoples should be given an opportunity to take part in decisions regarding the environment before damage occurs. In the process, they could raise people’s awareness of environmental issues, for indigenous peoples have traditionally viewed human beings as part of nature, not as something above or outside it,” Leena Heinämäki points out.

Finally, on the level of the individual, issues of another kind emerge.

The Arctic indigenous peoples are a very diverse group. Some live just like the mainstream population; others are nomads on the tundra; and still others engage in traditional and western livelihoods in tandem. For example, of Finland’s 9000 Sami, most work in western occupations, some one-third live in the Saami home district in northern Lapland, and a number do not speak any of the three Saami languages spoken in the country.

Many reasons can be cited for these trends: The state’s earlier policy of assimilation made Finns out of the Saami and the language was lost to a number of generations; the profitability of reindeer herding and other traditional livelihoods is poor; and the young generation wants to move to the cities, where they have access to a greater variety of educational and employment opportunities.

“The connection a person has to his or her own culture is very much an individual matter”, notes researcher Sanna Valkonen from the Faculty of Social Sciences.

A Saami herself, Valkonen defended her doctoral thesis last year on the political construction of the Saami identity.

“One thing highlighted in the identity are the features strongly associated with indigenous peoples, such as their relationship to the land, traditional livelihoods and their own language. This emphasis has been a well-justified one when seeking international and political recognition and status as an indigenous people. Yet, concentrating on these features alone may estrange those who do not or do not want to engage in the traditional livelihoods or who no longer speak the language but are still nevertheless identifiably Saami."

In Valkonen’s opinion, in the face of global changes, indigenous peoples should reflect on what aspects of their indigenous culture they want to preserve – regardless of what the international definitions of “indigenous people” and indigenous activism consider to be most important.

“For example, Saami culture has always been a hybrid culture: on the one hand, it has succeeded in retaining its own cultural features and traditions, and on the other it has adopted and incorporated influences from elsewhere. This has given the culture vitality”, Valkonen explains.

Valkonen is happy to see that indigenous culture is no longer something to be ashamed of, but rather a source of pride, at least in the Nordic countries.

“The young generation expresses its 'Saaminess' in the different domains of life: people teach their children the language, and Saami music and handicraft are flourishing. There are a number of big political issues that are yet to be resolved, but what is going on at the grass-roots level gives one hope for the future."


Research on indigenous peoples

  • The Arctic Indigenous Peoples and Saami Research Office in the Arctic Centre does research on the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples, conflicts relating to natural resources, and international policy regarding indigenous peoples.
  • The Institute for Environmental and Minority Law studies legal regulation relating to indigenous peoples and the applicability of environmental law to northern and Arctic circumstances.
  • In all of the University’s faculties and units, research takes indigenous perspectives into account when studying people, societies and the environment in the north and in the Arctic and the interaction of these elements.
  • Research in the multidisciplinary Arctic Doctoral Programme, coordinated by the Arctic Centre, focuses on the environmental and societal impacts on the Arctic of modernisation and global change. Current studies include work on the traditional ecological knowledge of Saami reindeer herders and research on indigenous peoples as political actors.
Traditional Saami?
Traditional nature-based livelihoods figure in one way or another in the everyday lives of many Arctic indigenous peoples, although few of them live by these activities alone. Nowadays it is hard to recognise an indigenous person by his or her dress. Tiina Sanila-Aikio would not even think of wearing the traditional Sami costume when out picking berries. It is reserved for festive occasions.

Read more about Tiina Sanila-Aikio at Traditions rock!
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