Pirita Näkkäläjärvi column: Stereotypes keep minorities “in their place”

Comedy sketches in the 1980s and 1990s were deeply hurtful to the Sámi people and spawned derogatory catchphrases that continue to be used by some people today.

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Screenshot showing Petelius & Kalliala comedy sketch / Credit: Yle

Finnish Member of Parliament and a former comedian Pirkka-Pekka Petelius (Green)
apologised this week to the Sámi people for his offensive ‘drunken Sámi’ TV sketches.

Petelius and fellow comedian Aake Kalliala mocked Sámi in the 1980s and 1990s in a TV comedy show broadcast on mainstream channels of the Finnish Broadcasting
Company Yle, and commercial station MTV.

The former actor says in his statement that these productions portrayed Sámi in a
discriminatory and distorted way.

Petelius’ apology is a symbolically significant gesture that we have been waiting for for a long time.

I have been asked whether Petelius and Kalliala’s TV sketches insulted Sámi thirty years ago.

Yes, they did.

The sketches hurt us. As members of a minority, we understood then, and we understand now the impact on us and on the wider audience of the ridicule spread by mainstream media.

The Sámi criticised the sketches already in the 1980s and 1990s but back then Sámi voices
were not heard as easily and widely as in the social media era that we live in now.

Romani people were also ridiculed in the same comedy shows. After the apology to the Sámi people, Petelius says he wants to discuss the TV sketches also with the National Advisory Board on Romani Affairs.

File picture of Pirita Näkkäläjärvi / Credit: Natta Summerky, Soi Foundation

Stereotypes show minorities “their place” in society

Petelius and Kalliala’s TV sketches have played a major role in rooting stereotypes about the Sámi people in Finland.

The pair dressed up in ugly fake Sámi dresses. Their make-up made them look unkempt. They kept yelling “nunnuka-lai-laa”. They portrayed the Sámi as dirty, simple-minded, and always drinking, and the expensive Sámi dress and the endangered Sámi yoik as ridiculous.

Stereotypes spread by media and entertainment are not harmless fun. They show minorities their “place” in society, and they cement asymmetrical power relations.

Associate Professor Dr. Abigail L. Levin says in her book The Cost of Free Speech:
Pornography, Hate Speech, and Their Challenge to Liberalism (2010) that subordinating
rhetoric and speech can be so powerful that they have the power to enact subordination and to keep those considered inferior “in their place”.

Stereotypes are a threat to the freedom of speech of minorities

There is a link between stereotypes and the freedom of speech of minorities. I studied Sámi freedom of speech in my 2017 MSc Dissertation at London School of Economics.

My qualitative interview research identified five threats to the freedom of speech of theindigenous people Sámi in Finland. One of them is subordination for example through
stereotypes.

Literature on minorities and women has examined subordination in the context of freedom of speech. Especially feminist literature about pornography has studied subordination.

According to legal scholar Catharine Mackinnon (2003) and Abigail Levin (2010), subordinating rhetoric can have a big impact.

Subordinating rhetoric:

1. Perpetuates the subordination of minorities by dominant culture
2. Ranks minority groups as inferior
3. Legitimises discrimination against minorities
4. Deprives minorities of certain powers and rights
5. Interferes with minorities’ range of options in life

File picture of MP Pirkka-Pekka Petelius (Green) / Credit: Vihreät

Nunnuka sketches are deeply embedded in the Finnish psyche

In my interview research people talked about subordination and stereotypes namely in the
context of the ‘drunken Sámi’ TV sketches by Pirkka-Pekka Petelius and Aake Kalliala.

Many interviewees see that the nunnuka sketches by Petelius and Kalliala reinforced
stereotypical perceptions about Sámi. They presented Sámi as inferior, and even questioned the ability of the Sámi to participate in public life.

Petelius and Kalliala built on old stereotypes. According to professor Veli-Pekka Lehtola, the old stereotypes associated with Sáminess portrayed the Sámi as primitive and backward.

You start to see the harmful effects of the nunnuka sketches when you think about the context in which they were broadcast on primetime TV in the 1980s and 1990s. There were still only a few national TV channels. Simultaneously, there was little or information about the Sámi available in Finnish society. At schools, the Sámi were hardly mentioned. The Finnish tourism industry used fake Sámi dresses in advertisements and created fake Sámi ceremonies performed by dirty “shamans”.

The nunnuka sketches are deeply embedded in the Finnish psyche. A Sámi person wearing a Sámi dress in a public place can still have people yelling ‘nunnuka-lai-laa’ at them. Even smart people in academia and the business world may slip out slurs that have echoes of the nunnuka sketches.

Luckily, the younger generation does not seem to associate the Sámi first and foremost with the nunnuka sketches or the old stereotypes. They see Sáminess as a natural part of diversity in society, and have a positive and curious attitude towards the Sámi.

File picture of Sámi flag / Credit: iStock

The apology is linked to the trust and reconciliation commission

Pirkka-Pekka Petelius’ statement published on the website of the Green Party indicates that the apology is linked to the ongoing trust and reconciliation process between the Finnish state and the Sámi.

Finnish people are gradually becoming aware of their privileged position compared to the
indigenous Sámi people.

Petelius’ apology is a sign of the changing times and that things are gradually improving in the Finnish society.