The importance of reindeer tracks

Recently Eelco van der Lingen attended his first VAP (Visual Arts Platform), the annual meeting of our European partner funds. It was hosted by OCA (The Office for Contemporary Art Norway), the location was the far north of Norway: the land of the Sámi. During the meeting, subjects were discussed that arise in all countries, such as the artists’ fees. But mostly there was a lot of attention for the art and culture of the Sámi, and particularly the way in which these are under pressure. The title of the meeting was therefore Decolonisation and transformation of the art world in the face of past and ongoing colonising mechanisms. Van der Lingen wrote a blogpost presenting his reflections.

The importance of reindeer tracks

Let me start on a light note, with a fun fact: The Dutch and the Sámi once ran into each other at the crossroads of immaterial cultural heritage; if the theories are correct, then they are jointly responsible for the story of Santa Claus.

The Sámi are the native inhabitants of Sápmi, an area spanning northern Norway, northern Finland, northern Sweden, and northwest Russia. (The terms ‘Lapps’ and ‘Lapland’ are considered derogatory. They are Sámi from Sápmi.) They are related to other peoples around the Arctic Circle, ranging from the Inuit in Greenland to the native inhabitants of northern Japan and Alaska.

The figure of Santa Claus derives from Sinterklaas, a figure that the Dutch emigrants are believed to have introduced in New Amsterdam, today’s New York. On that side of the ocean, he got company from reindeer coming along in 1894 when Sámi headed for their American brothers and sisters in Alaska. Flocks of reindeer were set out in the tundra of Alaska. In this way, the reindeer became a local exotic species that provided Alaska with some necessary food diversity. Somewhere in between, the story developed of the Santa Clause of the North Pole and his good friend Rudolph.

In the invitation for the VAP meeting in Kárášjohka in Sápmi, participants were asked about their dietary wishes, and at the same time, they were warned that the menu would consist mainly of reindeer meat. Once we arrived in Sápmi, we really encounter this animal everywhere. Enthusiastically, I take a picture of the reindeer curtain in my hotel room, and I enjoy a reindeer stew during our first meal together with the directors of the cultural funds of Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and Finland.

The following day, it turns out that the reindeer is more than a funny feature; the reindeer is also a symbol for the clash between the Sámi and the Norwegians from Oslo and its environs. In the 17th century, the Norwegians from the south moved northward in order to convince the ‘savages’ of the word of God. The Sámi welcomed the Norwegians and their God; they already had a lot of them and didn’t mind adding another. Besides, they don’t experience the land as their property so everyone is free to settle there. The story is reminiscent of the discovery and conquest of America. After the discovery, the native population was systematically suppressed and their culture was fought as much as possible. In the case of the Sámi, a tactic of assimilation was used. The original languages (there are approximately eight different Sámi languages), the joiks – throat singing for the identification of a place, person, animal or herd –, Sámi headwear, and religious practices were all banned. Inhabitants were scattered, and the Norwegians took over the territory.

De Ládjogahpir van Outi Pieski

De Ládjogahpir van Outi Pieski

The assimilation process has been reasonably successful, in the sense that the Sámi population is marginalized. Some Sámi languages have by now become completely extinct. Approximately one percent of the Norwegian population is still Sámi.

The reindeer is the cow of the Sámi, but contrary to cows, they should apparently not be held in farms. Reindeer move back and forth across the Scandinavian landscape along fixed tracks. These migration routes form the basis for the positioning of the various Sámi people. If borders are drawn between Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, the Sámi are confronted with the consequences. Migration routes are cut off, populations are split up.

This is still going on today, because the wind turbines that the Norwegian government wishes to place in Sápmi also mess up the migration routes. Before that, the rerouting of rivers and the placement of dams had already done that. The construction of a dam in the late seventies formed the start of great resistance by the Sámi population. When Norway decided that some Sámi villages could disappear under water in order to serve the energy supply in Norway, the Sámi occupied the Norwegian parliament. After a long period of protest and a number of hunger strikes, the plan for the dam was adjusted so as to spare the village of Maze. A Sámi parliament was set up and the Sámi started working on the reappraisal and restoration of the Sápmi culture.

Office for Contemporary Art Norway, the Norwegian sister of the Mondriaan Fund, commits itself to a better representation of the Sámi in the cultural field and organises visits from foreign institutes and curators to the area. It was a great success when several Sámi artists were included in the latest Documenta. The current Finnish pavilion in Venice also involves a Sámi artist.

Op bezoek bij het Sápmi-parlement

Op bezoek bij het Sápmi-parlement

The history and context of the Sámi form the basis for the VAP meeting, with its theme of decolonization. Beside a visit to the Sápmi parliament, we are shown presentations by Sámi artists, activists and musicians, and we attend a symposium of the artist group of the Finnish pavilion in Venice. From time to time our conversations (planned and unplanned) are interrupted for a joik that is considered appropriate, by the famous joiker Marie Boine, amongst others.

Outi Pieski, Marie Boine & Jenni Laiti

Outi Pieski, Marie Boine & Jenni Laiti

Even though the issue of the Sámi seems far removed from the Dutch context, there are striking similarities with the issue of inclusivity in the Netherlands. Institutional and social racism, the problem of one-sided narratives in museums, the arrogance of the prevailing art field that does want to welcome but is still reluctant to really exchange ideas, and the need for a better representation in the committees and staff of cultural organisations – these things all come up in our talks.

An important element, here as well, is the bandwidth (although here it’s called ‘the quality concept’). How can we determine the quality if we are not open to criteria outside of our own context? If we really wish to be open to minority groups, we will have to be willing to look with and through their eyes, and formulate a new set of criteria that offer space to a different and more inclusive experience of art and heritage. That is a process that takes time and a lot of patience – from ourselves, but certainly also from the parties that we would so much like to involve. One Sámi activist expresses the sensitivities: “We have been colonialized, but we are still being colonialized, also by you. I could have been in my studio, but you colonise my time. Because you need to grow, I have to come to you and give you my time. I do it, because it’s necessary, but you need to understand, you colonise me right now as well.”

Neo-colonization and inclusivity are uncomfortable processes that sometimes ask for drastic measures in order to arrive at a better balance. The talks indicated that the topic is high on the agenda at the various VAP countries and that the Mondriaan Fund is a frontrunner when it comes to a better social representation within its own organisation and the various committees. At the same time, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

It was very meaningful to be able to compare one’s own insights and experiences to those of the various European colleagues. It was also insightful to be able to look at the case of the Sámi, because sometimes it is easier to consider the issue from afar, rather than from the middle of it.