The centuries old specific narrative about the Arctic region is a paradox: on the one hand, the area is portrayed as a periphery empty of people, as terra nullius. At the same time, it is imagined as a cornucopia, a horn of plenty, and a “resource frontier” from which riches can be extracted. The indigenous population in the Arctic is often presented as having a special connection to nature, that is, as being “people of nature.” This has often been done by dichotomous constructions. Thus, situating indigenous peoples on the outside of culture and politics.
Indigenous worldviews are traditionally linked to their lands, to nature and to mutual respect between all beings. However, the discourses related to this relationship have had diverging consequences for the political agency of indigenous peoples. Up until the 1960s, also the academic interest with indigenous peoples has been on myths, cosmologies, languages and human-animal relations. Indigenous peoples and their languages, cultures, traditions, systems of belief, cosmologies, use of plants or relationships with nature, have for the most part been merely an object of study. The focus has primarily been on victimhood in global and state politics within a frame of colonialism, while agency and more nuanced histories of cultural meetings and local politics have been ignored. Contemporary research underlines how crucial it is to include cultural human rights as a core component of sustainable development. The tendency to not take indigenous voices into account in state and business development projects is in stark contradiction with policy papers that since the 1980s have stressed the importance of the involvement of the affected peoples in any development or planning activity.
Indigenous peoples’ rights and market powers
Indigenous people’s rights slowly took form in post-war Europe, and during the 1960’s indigenous movements around the world started to unite.[i] The Nordic Saami Council was established in 1956 and it also participated in the establishment of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. At the same time, in international law, the legal category “indigenous people” took form, and became the core of legal protection for indigenous peoples all around the world. However, the definition of the category and the answer to the question “Who is indigenous?” is frequently still debated. The internationally rather widely acknowledged criteria include that the indigenous peoples must have lived in the area before a state was established and that they have maintained a specific way of life, social structure, livelihood, habits, traditions, culture and language distinct from the majority population. Yet the moral basis for granting indigenous peoples special differentiated rights is on that they all have suffered under political circumstances during which their cultures, languages, religions or beliefs, livelihoods and the spaces for their livelihoods have been compromised or even destroyed by e.g. religious missionaries, state geopolitics, military interventions or wars and, last but not least, due to extractive industries.
The success of adopting a utilitarian versus a “nature people” approach when opposing state and enterprise extractivism diverges. In a study on Arctic local populations and extractive projects, it was found that the local populations which had managed to adopt a “utilitarian logic” were those that managed to make the best deals for themselves when extractive industries entered their lands.[ii] On the other hand, cases from Finland show that in collaboration with international organisations such as Greenpeace, Sámi communities have managed to put international pressure on industries that want to save their reputation given that nature conservation and sustainability are highly valued norms today. However, being labelled as a traditional “nature people” causes further difficulties to include contemporary ways of conducting Sámi livelihoods. For example, some argue that the Sámi claims for their rights to develop reindeer herding are in contradiction with their use of “modern technology” such as snow mobiles. The inclusion of modern technology seem to clash with arguments of “traditionalism” and “the natural universe” in the public discourse on Sámi culture and livelihood.
Towards sustainable future
The fantasies about the Arctic, how the indigenous peoples of the Arctic are or should be, are part of a grand narrative of Arctic lives. Yet the indigenous peoples of the Arctic have been forced to take part in discussions and even think of themselves in terms that may be totally contradictory to what they really are and wish to be. The international discourse on indigenous peoples’ rights is, of course, on the one side the story of advancing human rights and a story of emancipation. On the other hand, however, the indigenous peoples of the North have come to accept the politics of representation that stresses their internal homogeneity, ties them to a narrative of history that represents them as a people who have lived in total isolation, with unchanged livelihoods, one culture and one language. They are considered as the imaginary of “nature people”. This is of course not to say that nature and lands are not integral to indigenous and local people’s lives and culture – they are. However, new ways of being indigenous on the individual’s terms are being limited. This can be alienating especially for the youth.
What is fostering these kind of constraints? For example in the Nordic countries and in Russia, the narrative emphasises reindeer herding as a key profession of Sámi (even though merely ca. 5% of Sámi are reindeer herders). That, i.e., Sámi need to speak with one voice, need to show cultural and even mental unity, is just another form of cultural colonialisation: it was the Nordic states that pushed for establishing Sámi institutions such as parliaments in order to have an institutional counterpart. In case of Finland, it was of great state interest to shrink the home area of Sámi to such a small area. Now when we have an on-going debate on who has the right to call herself or himself Sámi in Finland, very few Sámi activists realise that also this debate or friction was brought to them from outside – with hideous consequences. As long as only those who are pleasing the dominant stereotype of being indigenous are seen as real indigenous persons, the emancipation of indigenous peoples hasn’t even started. When looking at the indigenous peoples’ situations in the Arctic from the perspective of sustainability science, we must take the differing histographies of the Arctic, the opposing narratives of nature and culture and complex discourses on how indigenous peoples are supposed to be, under close and critical scrutiny. Furthermore, we must ask ourselves whether the indigenous peoples in the Arctic really are part of the current political dialogue in a way that enables sustainable development for them as well.
Reetta Toivanen is Professor of Sustainability Science at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS), University of Helsinki.
The blog text is based on the article: Reetta Toivanen (2019). European Fantasy of the Arctic Region and the Rise of Indigenous Sámi Voices in the Global Arena. In Nikolas Sellheim, Yulia V. Zaika & Ilan Kelman (eds.) Arctic Triumph: Northern Innovation and Persistence. Springer Polar Sciences.
The research was funded by the Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland, project ALL-YOUTH (decision no 312689).
References and further reading:
[i] Saul, B. (2016). Indigenous Peoples Human Rights: International and Regional Jurisprudence, Oxford: Hart Publishing.
[ii]Stammler, F., & Ivanova, A. (2016). Confrontation, coexistence or co-ignorance? Negotiating human resource relations in two Russian regions. The Extractive Industries and Society, 3(1), 60-72.
Arbo, P., Iversen, A., Knol, M., Ringholm, T., & Sander, G. (2013). Arctic futures: Conceptualizations and images of a changing arctic. Polar Geography, 36(3), 163-182.
Ridanpää, J. (2007). Laughing at northernness: Postcolonialism and metafictive irony in the imaginative geography. Social & Cultural Geography, 8, 907–928.
Valkonen, J., & Valkonen, S. (2014). Contesting the nature relations of Sámi culture. Acta Borealia, 31(1), 25-40.
Photo by: Reetta Toivanen