Creative Indigenous Actors: Integration of Indigenous Studies at the University of Helsinki

In 2013, the research project Creative Indigenous Actors: Integration of Indigenous Studies at the University of Helsinki, conducted by Docent Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, received research funding from a donation made by the Future Fund of the University of Helsinki for research on cultures at the Faculty of Arts. In an email interview, Virtanen talked in detail about herself and her research.

Background of the research project

My research topic was Creative Indigenous Actors: Integration of Indigenous Studies at the University of Helsinki. The project received funding from 1 February 2013 to 31 December 2013, mainly for fieldwork and workshop arrangements. The purpose of the project was to integrate and form networks on the research on indigenous people conducted at the University of Helsinki. This has enabled the teaching on indigenous people and closely related issues to be organised in a more consistent manner. The starting point of the project was the philosophies of indigenous people, specifically current challenges and cooperation with indigenous people. The participation of researchers and students with indigenous backgrounds in the activities of our University should also be increased.

In addition to myself, Irja Seurujärvi-Kari from Sámi Studies, Lea Kantonen from the University of the Arts, as well as my student Anna Vohlonen from the Department of World Cultures, who is preparing her doctoral dissertation, have participated closely in the project. In the autumn of 2013, we organised a seminar, the participants of which included several researchers from the universities of Helsinki, Tromsø and Sorbonne, among others. The project has created new cooperation with other institutes offering studies on indigenous people.

My research focuses on, among other things, the information sources, learning processes, ontologies and ethnohistory of and policies related to indigenous people. The research will continue through my other projects.

I made the decision to study the indigenous people of Brazil in 2000. I had just completed my Master’s thesis and was visiting the country for several months. I recognised how creative indigenous youth were in combining different styles and cultures. I had carried out the fieldwork for my Master’s thesis elsewhere, namely in India. I gained more information on the activities of the Brazilian government during the two years I worked at the Brazilian Embassy in Helsinki. I acquired fieldwork experience in Lisbon, where I worked at the International Organization for Migration in 2002. I completed a study on young people with a second-generation Cape Verdean background living in the suburbs of Lisbon. In 2003, I began doctoral studies in Latin American Studies. My fieldwork assignment in the Brazilian state of Acre took shape with the help of an archaeological project organised by the discipline. Later, I worked closely with this project in connection with my other research topics. In 2007, I finished my doctoral dissertation on the passage of indigenous Amazonian youth into adulthood within the context of cities and reservations. In 2012, an updated version of the dissertation was published by the American Palgrave Macmillan publishing company. I have written and edited several other books on many other topics. My family has been able to participate in the fieldwork, and both of my small children have already visited Brazil. At the moment, I am also a research associate in Paris. I like to cooperate with different networks that have a common characteristic of daring to ask difficult and even critical questions of their research material.

The importance and social significance of the research topic

Indigenous people are active parties that in some countries constitute, in some cases, a majority.

All indigenous people are confronted by challenges of a very similar type. Their opportunities to live on their native land, practise their chosen livelihood and live according to their philosophy are often hindered by actions based solely on economic growth. Their cultures and languages also often suffer, since the policies of majority populations push them to the sidelines.

In addition, research on indigenous people has largely maintained prior power relations. It is on rare occasions that research has fundamentally understood the ideas and concepts of indigenous people. Information sources and ways of knowing utilised by indigenous people are rarely accepted as valid and legitimate. For them, thinking is not based on a binary juxtaposition of nature and culture or object and subject. The thinking of indigenous people has slowly entered Western science. Ethnography and language expertise must be advanced a great deal in order to better understand their thinking. It is important to involve members of indigenous people themselves in academic research and teaching. This helps them in becoming active parties in research.

What problems does the research solve?

The starting point for this project was my own ethnographic research among the indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazonia. I have worked in the region from 2003 with the Manchineri and Apurinã people. In 2013, I concentrated in my fieldwork on their current challenges and desires. For the first time, I travelled to the Apurinã reservation on the Tumiã river, which is located in the state of Amazonas and is part of the Purus river system in the upriver region of the Amazon river. The journey takes several days from the nearest city centre.

The theoretical framework of the project consisted of the ontologies and epistemic principles of the indigenous people. With their help, it is easier to understand the challenges facing indigenous people and to create a new kind of research. Unfortunately, the postcolonial study of indigenous people has so far been only able to a very limited extent to criticise prevailing concepts and point out power relations connected with the research from the perspective of indigenous people. I, however, have now been actively participating in the creation of a new kind of research and teaching network.

Does the research present any new information or disprove prior knowledge?

The research presents new information on the cultures, languages, history and philosophies of indigenous people.

The research examines social structures and power relations and opens up new ways of understanding deep-seated concepts in Western thinking. For example, the juxtaposition of nature and culture makes it difficult to understand many different social relationships. The research enhances multidisciplinary discussion and the comprehensive understanding of issues. It supports and examines the role of indigenous people as active parties.

At the end of 2013, the Finnish Literature Society published the book Alkuperäiskansat tämän päivän maailmassa (“Indigenous people in today’s world”), which I co-edited with Irja Seurujärvi-Kari and Lea Kantonen. The book contains 14 chapters and offers new information on the modernity and decolonial cosmopolitanism of indigenous people.

Does the research bring about change in society?

With the help of the project, the integration of teaching and research related to indigenous people at the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Social Sciences was begun. We have specifically attempted to standardise teaching on indigenous people at the Departments of World Cultures and Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies at the Faculty of Arts. All this teaching will soon be available on the University’s website.

A more comprehensive objective is to establish a study module focused on the knowledge and culture of indigenous people. The module would include the development of new methods and theoretical tools. These kinds of issues should be the grounding principle of research, teaching and supervision. Understanding the knowledge, livelihood and cultures of indigenous people can help solve many problems related to the environment, climate change and wellbeing. The knowledge of indigenous people is based on observations made by several generations. When students understand the notions, concepts and activities of indigenous people and their thinking in general, they will be able to examine many social issues from a new perspective. Power relations will also be perceived in a different way. The critical consideration and discussion of issues, a comprehensive perspective and multidisciplinarity will be emphasised.

Why should research in the humanities be supported?

Research in the humanities is synonymous to understanding issues in both a wide-ranging and fundamental manner. It examines issues both in the historical and contemporary contexts, and also perceives the future of humanity. Humanities researchers understand the local context, and they should be proficient in local languages. Understanding human thought and activities on several levels is helpful in analysing many social problems in a new way. In addition, multicultural research creates knowledge of various methods of learning and education that are also beneficial to Western research.

Humanities researchers are important experts in many such fields where they have few representatives, for example, in economics, as well as in the development of technology and infrastructures. In administration, their expertise is especially needed in ministries of culture, education, the environment and foreign affairs. Fields related to health, museums, justice and legislation also benefit from the knowledge, competence and skills of humanities researchers.

Greetings to current and future donors

Thank you for your donation! We are looking for funding for singularly courageous ideas. Research that looks for new perspectives and partners in a dynamic and critical manner is especially important, as are various pilot projects. We were able to apply for extended three-year project funding at the University of Helsinki, and we are now applying for funds from the ERC.