Sámit, an Indigenous people among many

"IMO" lithopgraph 1974

4. Sámi as one of many Indigenous people

 

Any group or individual whose surroundings are a threat to a natural and healthy development, seek solution, and allies outside the threat in order to strengthen the chances for survival. The Sámi, as most other Indigenous people, and numberless others are or have been in that situation, some in fact have succumbed to the threat, and are already extinct, like the Yahi people of present California, to name just one famous example.

Among Sámi artists John Andreas Savio travelled abroad, and built an international network. Artistically speaking he was very interested in East Asian art and culture, both Chinese and Japanese. He read books about these subjects at libraries and also purchased some himself, despite his often difficult economical situation. Many of the classic Sámi artists have been invited to hold exhibitions abroad. Some have done more than that.

Nils Aslak Valkeapää was another famous artist, like Mari Boine, with a clear intention to build and extent international contacts, especially to other Indigenous groups.

 

Early contacts

When the Sámi Council was created in 1956 as a common basis for ethno-political activity aimed to recuperate some of the drawbacks of the nation state borders that had split our people into four by the establishment of Norway, Sweden, Finland (1741) and Russia (1826) (later Soviet Union), there was also a natural tendency also to seek connection with similar organizations elsewhere, first of all FUEN, and Oslo Sámi Association (the only one at the time) was a member.  This organization aimed to unite on some levels all the various ethnic minorities, regardless of whether they were Indigenous or not. Their representatives were invited to attend Nordic Sámi Council meetings. We also had contacts with “Grønlenderforeningen in Copenhaagen “Pekatigit Kalatdlit”, I visited their house. 

The term indigenous developed from various terms that seemed to make a difference between the statuses of these groups. Minorities, Aboriginal, First nations, all were more or less precise terms for various kinds of groups. Even within one group there could be variation, like in American “status” and “non-status” Indians, or like in Samiland: Reindeer herding Sámit, Coastal Sámit, River-Sámit, and of course “Norwegian Sámit”, “Swedish Sámit”, “Finnish Sámit” and Russian Sámit, “City-Sámit”, you name it! One term evolved that has in many ways made the others redundant, “Indigenous” is a term internationally accepted as valid for a certain group of people who are descendants of the oldest known population (still in existence) and who live in in any area which later has been divided and/or has included their land before these borders were fixed. 

 

As has been the case with other Indigenous groups, the first to see their needs in a hopeless situation, were non-Indigenous, either they exp0loited us, helped and exploited us, or simply opened the eyes of the surrounding societies to the injustices committed against us. Such people were hardly thanked by their own, and were often harassed as a result, but Sámi people are indebted to people like hardly Eilert Sundt, Jens Otterbeck and several others.

One such person published a book that had great consequences for the Sámi revitalization process about to getting momentum, Per Otnes: Den samiske nasjon (1970) The political history of the Sámi people is a landmark in the history of political an social consciousness raising in the arctic north. Another Norwegian writer, married to a Sámi, also joined in with hos book “Samene Idag og Imorgen” (The Sámi, today and tomorrow). It is important that we recognize that the Sámi revitalization process is a joint venture, and the helpers encouraged us to take it on rather than taking over from us.

George Manuel of the Interior Sálish people in Western Canada, wrote a groundbreaking book “THE FOURTH WORLD” (197x), indication g the global importance of the Indigenous populations numbering millions after millions in almost every country in the world.

 

Organizing Indigenous people

I have to mention that this is neither an exact nor a complete record of the theme, for that we have to consult numerous books written on this and similar subjects, some already mentioned.

There existed in the early 60s and 70s federal organizations similar and parallel to that of the Nordic Sámi Council, and more came along. We had Native Yukon Brotherhood of Canada, Indian-Eskimo Association, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, and of course the most famous of them all, American Indian Movement, who staged the Wounded Knee demonstration in 27.02.1973 in commemoration of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 29.12.1890, and resulting in a warlike situation against FBI, that still is not resolved.

In Copenhagen there has since 1968 existed a group of professional ethnologists, ethnographers and other experts on Indigenous issues, called IWGIA, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, initiated by the charismatic Helge Kleivan, from Romsa/Tromsø, and of Sámi decent, they have published a huge volume of reports on the dramatic situations of Indigenous people around the world. Their contribution through to the organizing of Indigenous people is impossible to ignore. In the early 1970ies they worked towards making a global network of similar organizations, Survival International, Indigena to name just a few, were based in  non-Indigenous idealism aiming to help us taking over as much of the work as possible ourselves. The first step towards a global organization for Indigenous people was to summon regional meetings, as a forerunner and preparation to the next step. Thus IWGIA organized in 1973(?) the Arctic Indigenous Meeting, that I had hoped to attend, but was unable to. However, one of my friends Knut Johnsen of Deatnu did. One of the interesting discussions going on there was the content of the term “Indigenous” or rather "What is an Indigenous People and who is an Indigenous person?" Based on the results of these regional meetings, the formal foundation of what was soon to become the World Council of Indigenous People was built, that staged their first General Assembly in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island in 1975.

 

 

Small, but we are many

Since I was present at that fantastic occasion, I will come back to it on more detail later, but now go back in time and explain my own relation as an artist to International Indigenous movements. As a young activist I clearly saw the necessity and possibility for Sámit to claim and maintain and Indigenous position within Fenno-scandia, and also to make contacts with other Indigenous peoples. This can clearly be seen in my map Sábmi of 1975, which includes a world map with the names of many Indigenous peoples, as well as an Arctic map wit the same focus. But my activity for establishing Indigenous connection started even before that.

In an informal, personal and a little naıve letter (corrected for spelling mistakes) to the Indian-Eskimo Association:

 

<Indian-Eskimo Association                                                 Tromsø, 22nd of August 72

Dear leaders of INDIAN-ESKIMO Association.

Myself, I’m a half-breed Lapp, and consequently a member of one of the thousands of minorities in the world. The Lapps live in the northern part of Scandinavia. We have not so good organizations as you seem to have, we are so few, and we, our nation are split into four ”other civilized nations”, Norway, Sweden, Finland and the USSR. Perhaps you have heard of us, and know of us? Yes, we must know of each other, and other minorities in the entire world. I think it be good when we can learn how other fight for their rights. Together we may be a little more strong. Why shouldn’t we form an international minority organization with an IMO-fund, committee, and frequent (annual) and effective congresses and conferences. How was it possible to combine the Indian and Eskimo- organizations, I would like to know. Yes, I would like to have some information of your work as minorities of Canada. I shall contact my own organizations NSR, The Lapp organization in Norway, if they might do something. I don’t know. Perhaps you’d better try to start it all with an international minority congress or something? I whish you could discuss it and inform me of the result. Surely the job is a big one, but I’m sure it is not Utopias. The land of Utopia is a white man’s invention. We have never mentioned it. I would like to pay for the information you please to give, or by being an overseas member. I’m a student, not rich, and I’m not proposed to be so. I’m studying art in Oslo. Thank you very much, and excuse my bad English.

Hans Ragnar Mathisen Grimsø,

Grøtsundveien 15, 9020 Tromsdalen, Norway in Europe.

 

This clearly shows a concern for the wellbeing not only of my own people, but for all Indigenous peoples in the world, I wanted to do something actively, and wrote this letter. There is a slight hint at dissatisfaction with our own organizations, of which I was a member, and the reason was my impatience with the activities. I asked the current leader of NSR, Regnor Sollbakk whether there was any contact at all, and he assured me that something was under way in Indigenous organizing, he did not let me know more. Having taken part in some Sámi political meetings, I clearly saw the effect of alcohol on the participants; the day after the first night was almost impossible to gather them for the morning sessions. I believe this is also an indication of the pressures and conflicts our status as a minority group in countries that would not give anything unless we fought really hard for it. I was pleased to see that after some years this situation improved greatly, but my worries at the time were well founded.

I sincerely believed that my idea would deserve positive response, but I never got any reply. At this time “Lapp” was the current international/formal term of our people, against which I was strongly opposed, but many Indigenous peoples have had to accept that until their own name won recognition, ethnographic names, often rendered derogatory, were used, hence “Lapp” and “Eskimo”.

 

As an artist I was exited that this idea could become reality, and I made a lithograph with a Native American on horseback, presumably an Apache, maybe even Geronimo, with a suggested logo for “IMO” in the clouds of the background.

 

Yet as an artist, I was also a free-lance journalist and a politician both Sámi and Indigenous. This is another letter more than one year later:

 

<Chief Elijah Smith President Yukon Native Brotherhood Canada Oslo, 28.10.1973

Dear Chief Elijah Smith!

Earlier this year I read in the newspaper Vancouver Sun an article, which caught my interest: Dated February 24th this year. It was taken from a letter to Canadian Government on land claims.

Myself, a student in Oslo Art Academy (painting and drawing), I’m of Samic (=Lappish) kin, and I found striking parallels between your people and mine. The Lappish nation lives in northern Scandinavia, and are of Asian, not European stock. Part of our population are reindeer nomads, another bigger part are living on fishing, hunting and some household (farming on small scale). We too are very anxious on our future, because industry and mining are eating our old land.

It is of great importance that ethnic minorities all around the world know of each other. Perhaps we could help and learn from each other! We look forward to the International Minority Congress to be held in Canada next summer; I hope you will be represented there.

When there are many voices on the same cry, perhaps they will listen…

I thank you for having written this article, there are such likenesses between our ways of thinking, too.

I want to translate the article, and publish it in this country, and I wrote first to the paper in Vancouver, because I had no other address, but they gave it, and I am glad now to write to the right persons. Will you permit it? If you want, I may be able to write or send you something more about us and our problems, both ancient and ”modern”! Ah, we are lucky, because we have the right on our side, although we’ll have to fight hard and long further. Could you please tell me how things work, did they respect your claims, or did they ignore it? I’m sure it would be easier, when we could support each other. And I’m sure your letter, your words, would be of great interest and help among us.

On behalf of my people the Sábmelažžat I send warm greetings to our brothers and sisters in Yukon. ČSV {is} our national symbol. Hans Ragnar Mathisen St. Olavs gt. 13, Oslo 1 Norway.

 

 

I translated several articles appearing in various International Indigenous media, and published them in our Sámi newspapers. One article was about the Oil exploitation in Alaska, where natives for the first time would have some influence and share for some years. (Alaxsxix- Alaska, including a map, 24.07.1975 ) Another was about the Education system of Canada and its negative effect on native children and youth. (Tell us what you do to our children, because it is breaking our hearts! The Vancouver Sun, Saturday24. 02. 1973), translated 21.10.1973.  This must have been some of the earliest documentation, translated into Norwegian, of Indigenous issues in news media for Sámi people. Another important translated featured the Indigenous people of Amazonia, translated from INDIGENA, and AKWESASNE NEWS, “Hvordan bli en Stormakt, Brazil? Brasilske myndigheter “åpner amazon-området for UTVIKLINGEN” includes a detailed map of Indigenous people of this area. (1975)

Later I was able to write my own reports from various travels abroad meeting Indigenous peoples, but that will belong to another chapter.

 

In 1974 and 75 I took part in several Sámi political meetings, including youth conferences. One at Ongkere/Ankarede I presented the blue-print of the map for the first time after an adventurous travel there. They were very encouraged and looked forward to the publishing of it. It was at meetings like these that I suggested a co-operation with Sámi artists, to work together for a common aim. Some of the Sámi young artists on the Swedish side were keen to join. (Britta Marakatt and Rose Marie Huvva, among others.) This was the initiating sequence of what was later to become Sámi Artist Group.

 

In 1975 I brought with me the same blue-copy of the pan-Sámi map, which also included a small world map of Indigenous peoples. I made a separate preliminary world map, but my idea then to make a complete world map+ of Indigenous people, have not yet materialized, perhaps it will? In any case, the Sábmi map became a documentation of our existence, and was a two dimensional ambassador for our people, up till now. I shoed the sketch map at the WCIP conference in Port Alberni, encouraging other Indigenous people to do likew9se.

 

Another important happening in 1975, was the meeting of many Indigenous young people from Asia, participating in a musical called Song of Asia, and we were invited to attend, both the performance and a discussion afterwards. Ailo Gaup and me spoke at this meeting. One of the Norwegian organizers for this group of MRA, said afterwards that for the fist time she had felt ashamed of being Norwegian.

I have been much criticized for joining this group after that, in my view bot unfair and unjustified. I would not have exchanged the experience of traveling around the globe with Song of Asia for the world! And it made me a more effective activist for Sámi rights!

At the end of the year, we were a group of young Sámi people who travelled to attend the first General Assembly of the World Council of Indigenous people in Port Alberni  (not Port Albany!) on Vancouver Island Oct 30 to Nov 3rd(?) 1975, either as one of the 9 delegates, or, like me, as an observer.

 

This was the longest travel I have had, and to another continent as well. I quickly befriended the local Indigenous people there, since I did not have to attend so many of the meetings that seemed to stalemate. First of all, the Sámi were perhaps over-represented, and constituted almost 1/4th of the assembly of delegates. The explanation was that each country could send 3 Indigenous delegates, and had Russia been accessible at the time, we would have had 12 delegates, but even 9 seemed a bit too much. But the fact that these were all fair skinned, created a lot of mistrust from the mainly dark-skinned delegates, especially from Latin America. Their fight was against “white” exploitation, and they could not see much difference, alas. It was mainly during the cultural evenings that took place more or less spontaneously each meeting after the tiring meetings, that people loosened up, and had some spiritual edification. Nils Aslak Valkeapää solved the situation as far as the Sámi was concerned, and his adaption of a traditional luohtti into “Biegga” mesmerized the audience, and from then onwards, the Sámi were accepted into the Indigenous family. It was a great moment, and clearly demonstrated the power and depth of Art.

 

Nástegiettáš 28.06.2015

Keviselie, Hans Ragnar Mathisen

George Manuel, the first WCIP president, at Port Alberni 1975 (photo: Keviselie)
Port Alberni, November 1975

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