Where The Truth Lies: Finland’s New Attempts At Sámi Reconciliation

Money for a new commission is a start, but Sámi activists argue that such a sensitive subject must be treated carefully, especially for the people directly affected by Finnish attempts to assimilate Sámi children over decades at harsh boarding schools.

In this 1995 photograph, 49 Sami skulls that were taken from graves in 1934 by researchers are given a new burial on Hautuumaasaari Island, Inari / Credit: Harri Nurminen

The Finnish Government has set aside €200,000 to launch a new commission to look at reconciliation between the Finnish state and Sámi people.

While the move has been cautiously welcomed by some in the Sámi community, others look at the timing of the announcement more cynically during Finland’s 100th independence anniversary celebrations, which emphasises the theme ‘Together’.

The idea of an official reconciliation process raises painful issues for many Sámi, because injusticies were not only historical, but also took place in more recent living memory. Other issues around traditional land use and rights continue to cause friction between Sámi communities and the Finnish state.

One of the most pressing subjects that all sides say needs so be addressed, is attempts to culturally and linguistically ‘whitewash’ Sámi children through compulsory strict Finnish education, which continued into the 1970s.

Antero’s Story

When Antero was seven years old, he was sent from his home in Inari in Lapland, to a residential school 40 kilometres away. The year was 1971, and although he came from a Sámi family, the only education offered by the state was taught in Finnish.

It was part of a process begun in the late 1940s to assimilate Sámi children into Finnish society and impose Finnish cultural norms on them through compulsory schooling at residential facilities.

“My father’s first language was Inari Sámi, and mother’s first language was Skolt Sámi” says Antero, who asked to use only his middle name in interviews, because of the sensitivity that still surrounds these issues for many Sámi people.

“They didn’t talk Sámi at home except with their relatives. For us children they always spoke Finnish. I think it was kind of the spirit of the time, they were a little ashamed about all things related to Sámi culture and of course the language was the one part of it” he says.

While Antero was never punished at school for being Sámi – because he spoke with other Sámi children only in Finnish – but his mother was, during her school years. Beatings for speaking Sámi reinforced in the children that it was something bad, to the point where they in turn also discouraged their own children from speaking Sámi.

“At first, I never myself was treated violently by officials, teachers and others. I mean physically. But together with my brother and classmates, we met mental violence especially during the first three school years” Antero tells News Now Finland.

“I also saw physical violence used towards my classmates, so the violence was there and that was plenty of feelings to handle for a seven-year-old kid”.

The intimidation at school made Antero afraid to return after weekends at home. For many years he says, Sunday evenings were a sad and anxious time for him.

And so Antero worked hard to forget all the Sámi words he heard the adults speak. He forgot his Skolt Sámi grandmother’s stories. He learned to be a compliant Finnish speaker for the next 45 years.

A 1914 picture showing a young Sámi girl / Credit: SIIDA Sámi Museum, Inari

‘Lesser People’

It was a similar story for many families in Lapland throughout this era. An entire generation shamed into abandoning their mother tongue by a state, a society, and successive governments that viewed the Sámi people as ‘other’ – not white Finns, but something else.

As Europe’s only indigenous people, the Sámi were considered at times to be ‘lesser’.

“The State of Finland protected one heritage” says Mikkel Näkkäläjärvi, an Inari Sámi who is also President of the Social Democratic Youth Demarinuoret.

“In the 1930s, they opened graves of Sámi people in Inari, and it was a common idea that Sámi people were a bit more stupid and not as intelligent as Finnish people. So they made some kind of skull measurements, and it was totally eugenics” says Näkkäläjärvi.

“I guess most of the Finns didn’t have any clue this kind of history is in Finland” he adds.

New Process in the Pipeline

Last week, the Finnish Government announced funding for a new independent commission to start a reconciliation process between the state, and the Sami people.

The precise details are still fluid. No commissioners have been nominated yet. There’s no terms of reference. Even the name of the process – whether it is just ‘reconciliation’ or whether the word ‘truth’ is included as well – is divisive.

Commission organisers say they expect to come up with some recommendations, probably geared towards language, culture, and those residential schools.

“There’s a clear lack of trust, and there are problems. It seems more sharing and dialogue and knowledge and education about Sámi people is needed” says Johanna Suurpää, Director for Democracy and Fundamental Rights at the Ministry of Justice, who is taking the lead on the process.

“I think the fact there is a preparedness to start the process shows there is interest and willingness to face some of those issues. We don’t know what those consequences will be. But the fact we have come this far should be proof of something” she says.

In this June 2016 picture, Sámi Parliament President Tiina Sanila-Aikio takes a selfie / Credit: @TiinaSaAi Twitter

Sámi Leadership Reaction

The move to establish some sort of commission has been cautiously welcomed by the Sámi Parliament Sámediggi in Inari. Politicians there have been working with Finnish authorities towards the announcement as part of their legislative agenda.

But for Sámi people, who are not naturally confrontational, the prospect of discussing some of the darkest periods in recent history is not exactly being relished.

“We have had so little arenas to talk about this that we must prepare our society to face these very hard and complicated issues” says Tiina Sanila-Aikio, President of the Sámi Parliament of Finland.

“These are so very sensitive issues, when we talk about boarding school traumas, and things that have happened there. How people have lost their language and identity, these are sensitive questions” she says.

Other more current problems have cropped up in the relationship between Finland’s Sami and the state: issues like fishing rights, forestry use and reindeer husbandry. Plans to build railway lines through traditional Sámi lands upset many in a community that has always tried to live in balance with the natural world.

Finland’s continued refusal to sign the International Labour Organisation ILO Convention 169, which would guarantee Sámi people the same rights as other citizens, is also a major cause of tension between the government and Sámi people.

Dissenting Voices 

It’s not hard to find those within the Sámi community who are vocal about their skepticism for any sort of reconciliation process, especially if it’s as vague as the current Finnish government plans.

“Finland proceeds to establish Sámi Reconciliation Commission to celebration Finland 100 with a theme ‘together’. What a freaking joke” wrote Rauna Kuokkanen on Twitter.

A Professor of Arctic Indigenous Politics at the University of Lapland, Kuokkanen says that in Canada an official apology came first from the state for the treatment of indigenous tribes; then a long process of discussions before a reconciliation commission with clear terms of reference and objectives.

Finland, Kuokkanen feels, is putting the cart before the horse, and says she is “frustrated” with last week’s Ministry of Justice announcement.

“How can we talk about reconciliation if we have difficulty believing there has been colonialism in Finland?” she asks.

“There are layers and layers of basic facts that need to be owned up to before you start talking about respectful relationships, and that’s what a lot of Sámi have trouble with” she says.

“Anywhere in the world it starts with an apology. That’s the first step. Then you establish the truth. And then it’s a several-generation process of reconciliation that needs to happen individually and collectively” says Kuokkanen, who describes an official apology from the Government of Canada as a “cathartic” moment for indigenous people there. 

“To me it seems very dishonest and faulty the way you can assume you can jump over these critical stages and get right into the reconciliation” she adds.

Social Democrat Youth President Mikkel Näkkäläjärvi agrees that an apology is needed to kick-start the process.

“For sure the President or the Prime Minister should make some kind of official apology. Actually five years ago the Finnish church and bishops from Oulu made some kind of official apology from the church. The church and the state are quite guilty” he says.

File photograph of Joffas Feodoroff (L),Tiina and Natalia; and Toini Sanila at reindeer enclosure, Sevettijärvi, Inari 1995 / Credit: Harri Nurminen

Lost Generations

Decades of forced assimilation in Finnish schools decimated Sámi culture, and the language in particular.

“For some Sámis it was quite terrible time. Some of the Sámi just totally lost their language. When you think about Skolt Sámi, they left their language at home when they went to school”, says Minna Rasmus, a researcher and Sámi language teacher at the University of Oulu, who describes it as a “culture shock” when Sámi children from rural areas were suddenly thrust into an all-Finnish-speaking environment they didn’t understand.

“One of the biggest effects has been a lot of the kids have been ashamed of their roots and haven’t taught the language to their children. There are one or two generations now in Inari and Skolt who are not using their mother tongue” she says.

Sámi communities in Finland speak three different languages, and two of them are considered endangered.

Northern Sámi is the most widely used, with 2000 native speakers. Inari Sámi is the only Sámi language spoken exclusively in Finland, with less than 300 native speakers. But it’s Skolt Sámi that is critically endangered. Although there are roughly the same number of speakers as Inari Sámi, the population is ageing, and there’s little money for immersion programmes or Skolt-language media.

Reclaiming Sami Heritage

Antero, sent to residential school age 7, began the process to reclaim his own heritage only a few years ago.

After a career in the IT industry, he went back to school to learn Inari Sámi.

“I started to think about these things a few years ago because my eldest daughter she started to talk to me about them, and I was forced to confront it, and talk about it more and more” says Antero.

“After I started to deal with my history, I have found lots of things I had forgotten, and it has been quite a trip starting to realize what has happened” he says.

Antero credits the Inari Sámi community for welcoming people like him back into the linguistic fold, as part of ongoing efforts to revitalize the language.

“Of course the language is quite a big part of it, and I don’t say that I’m getting my culture back just by learning Inari Sámi, but I think it’s a way to at least handle the problem” he adds.

The idea of any official reconciliation efforts sits uneasily with Antero, perhaps not surprising considering how adversely he was affected by the Finnish education system.

“I don’t trust too much into the process, but on the other hand it’s good that it started and people can start to talk about it, and from that, perhaps build a new picture of what Sámi is” he says.

“Nowadays, the picture of the Sámi brought to us by newspapers and [state funded broadcaster] YLE is that the Sámi is always angry about something. And I am wishing that the discussion of reconciliation leads to better knowledge of Sámi, and Sámi culture”.