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

The Saami, who have lived for millennia in the area that is now northern Finland, Sweden and Norway and northwest Russia, are living testimony that being an indigenous people does not mean having primitive and mystical traditions, let alone a fossilized way of life.

Tiina Sanila-Aikio, 27, a Skolt Sami living in the northern Finnish town of Inari, lives a life very much steeped in Saami culture. For example, her family is engaged in traditional natural livelihoods.

”My Inari Saami husband and I are both from reindeer-herding families, but very few families today can make a living by herding alone. In our family, as in many others, the wife works outside the home and the husband is a reindeer herder”, Sanila-Aikio says, adding that fishing and berry picking are part of the family’s daily routine.

“We fish for our own needs – trout in the autumn, and whitefish and salmon in the summer. Nowadays, with freezers, we can enjoy the fruits of nature year round.”

Tiina Sanila-Aikio works with the Skolt Saami language. Included on this very active Saami’s agenda are a Skolt Saami primer for the Sami Parliament and contributions to her people’s time-honoured administrative system and the Skolt Cultural Association.

The Skolts are a minority of at most a thousand in a worldwide Saami population just shy of one hundred thousand. The Skolt culture differs from other Saami cultures in language, music, handicraft and dress and religion. Of Finland’s 600 Skolts, two-thirds live in the eastern part of the Municipality of Inari, designated in Finnish law as the Skolt Saami area. It is here that the Skolt Saami living in Petsamo were resettled after World War Two, when Finland lost the region to the Soviet Union. Skolt communities are also found in northeast Norway and northwest Russia. Native speakers of the Skolt language number some 300, most of whom live in Finland.

Tiina Sanila-Aikio spent her childhood and youth in the village of Sevettijärvi, where the Skolt culture and language are still very much alive. Many know Tiina as the woman who created the world’s first Skolt-language rock albums in 2005 and 2007.

“Having rock in their own language is one way to get young people interested in their roots and bring the language to life in the modern day”, says Sanila-Aikio with reference to musical ambitions.

And interest is needed, because since the 1970s very few Skolt children have learned Skolt as their mother tongue. Work on developing the written language did not start until the 1970s. Tiina Sanila-Aikio notes that the problem in reviving the language and culture today is not the attitude of the majority population or funding, but a lack of language workers.

“Fortunately, progress has been made in the last five years: Skolt Saami is being taught as a mother tongue in some elementary and upper secondary schools and there are two language nests in which children can learn Skolt even though their parents cannot speak the language. One can also cite a number of ongoing culture and language projects. But with the resources available for language work today, it is impossible to overcome the lack of teachers and materials”, Sanila-Aikio reports, pointing out in the same breath the potential of modern technology in this area.

“For example, audioblogging and social media can help those outside the Saami region keep in touch with the language and culture.”

Perhaps the most important step where the language is concerned is being taken in the Sanila-Aikio family. Tiina’s daughter, Elli-Då’mnn, is learning her mother tongue, Skolt Saami, as well as a second threatened Saami language, Inari Saami, the language spoken in her father’s family.
Skolt musician
Tiina Sanila-Aikio is famous for composing the lyrics of the songs on the world’s first Skolt-language rock albums. Her talent goes beyond rock: she is also skilled in leu’dd, the traditional music of the Skolts.
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