Pirita Näkkäläjärvi Column: Saana Illumination Is Grotesque & Reeks Of Colonialism

Pirita Näkkäläjärvi is the 2017 recipient of the Sámi of the Year award. Originally from Inari, she was previously head of YLE's Sámi-language news. Pirita now lives in Helsinki, and works as a consultant.

Picture of the Luminous light installation at Saana Fell in Lapland / Credit: Saana Tiia Pulkkinen

The Saana fell in Kilpisjärvi, in the ‘Arm of Finland’ is illuminated on Monday and Tuesday as part of the official programme celebrating Finland’s 100 years of Independence.

Saana lies in the heartland of the Sámiland – a thoroughly colonized area, which has been carved up by the borders of the four nation states, and continues to be choked by the various forms of land-grabbing.

The installation is called Luminous, and consists of six light art pieces around Finland. Besides Saana, the other illuminated locations are the Töölönlahti bay in Helsinki, the Olavinlinna castle in Savonlinna, the Näsinneula observation tower in Tampere, the island Kuusisaari in Oulu and the Turku castle.

I heard about the illumination for the first time about a year ago. My initial reaction was that the whole idea is grotesque, vulgar and reeking of the spirit of colonialism. Nothing that I have learnt since then has made me change my mind about the art piece.

Despite the good intentions, the planned communication cooperation between the Luminous artist Kari Kola, the Sámi Parliament and the Sámi people never took place.

The Finnish artist also fails to mention the indigenous Sámi people in the description of the illumination on the website of his company Valoparta.

“Since ancient times Saana has been a significant and a sacred place for Finns and all peoples in the North” he explains, continuing that “as a one distinguished feature, it must be one of the most precious elements in Finland to us Finns”

“It’s as if the Sámi didn’t even exist,” commented Taarna Valtonen, a Finnish researcher of Sámi culture and co-author of a biography about the late Sámi artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

I agree. The description of Luminous is troubling for anyone aware of the history of the Kilpisjärvi area and its significance to Sámi culture.

To start with, the “thumb of the Finnish arm” is a narrow strip. Sámi have lived in and migrated through the area with their reindeer since times immemorial. Documents from the 1500s onwards tell of Sámi activity in the area. Archeological findings from even earlier, at least from the 1300s, have been discovered in graves in the vicinity of the bygone Rounala church.

The Kilpisjärvi area became an important summer pasture area for Reindeer Sámi in the late 1800s. As the borders between Finland-Russia, Norway and Sweden were closed for the nomadic Sámi between 1852 and 1889, and the nomadic Sámi were forced to decide which country to settle in.

Those registered in Finland could no longer migrate with their reindeer to the Norwegian coast and had to stay inland, for example, in the Kilpisjärvi area instead.

However, during the last decade many Reindeer Sámi have had to withdraw with their reindeer from the Kilpisjärvi area. It is increasingly difficult to herd reindeer in an area occupied and disturbed by tourism, construction and roads. Even before that, the herding prohibition at the nearby Malla Strict Nature Reserve had narrowed down the reindeer herding pastures.

Furthermore, the Kilpisjärvi area and the arm of Finland are faced with continuous pressure for landgrabbing such as plans for a pump power plant, a railway, more wind power infrastruture, and mining interests. For anyone interested in learning more, I recommend watching the document The Reindeer Belong to the Wind, narrated by Sámi actress, lawyer and reindeer-herder Anni-Kristiina Juuso.

The illumination is like the last, symbolic nail in the coffin of this development.

But in the end we cannot blame the Finnish artist Kari Kola. In the spirit of free, prior and informed consent, he sought permission for his light show from the Sámi Parliament of Finland already in January 2017. The statement is not publicly available, but I got it a couple of days ago upon request.

The Sámi Parliament stated that it sees ‘no obstacles’ for the illumination as long as it has permission from the local reindeer-herding cooperative of the Arm of Finland, and as long as the placing of the lighting equipment is coordinated with the reindeer-herding cooperative.

The problem with the short statement of the Sámi Parliament is that it fails to take into account the different levels of the matter. The first level is the practical, local level.

Nevertheless, there is a strong symbolic dimension to the illumination carried out by a Finnish artist in the Sámi peoples’ area. Unfortunately the Sámi Parliament fails to educate the artist about how troubling the illumination and its timing are in the context of the colonial history of  Sámiland and the Kilpisjärvi area in particular.

Projecting the colours of the flag of the nation state Finland on the independence day at the heartland of the Sámi is a strong reminder of our place in the contemporary Finland. The illumination is a strong symbolic display of power over the Sámi.

It brings out memories of our painful past. It perpetuates the unequal power relations in the year 2017 that was supposed to be a celebratory event for Finns and the Sámi alike.
alike. (On 6 February 2017, the Sámi celebrated 100 years of Nordic Sámi political cooperation that started in Trondheim on 6th February 1917).

The only consolation that I find in the illumination is that the critique expressed has raised a lot of media interest. No wonder, because symbolic power, power relations and the relationship between Finland and its indigenous people Sámi are a fascinating topic.

Hopefully the discussion about the illumination has raised awareness about the colonial history of the Sámiland and the fact that the Sámi struggles continue even in the year 2017.

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