THE ETHNICITY OF THE CITY SÁMI

Kati Uusi-Rauva, MA, Helsinki

 

The City Sámi or those Sámi people that live in the Greater Helsinki area number approximately 450. Compared to the size of the metropolis and other ethnic minorities living in the area this group is small, although for the 8000 Sámi resident in Finland they form a significant group outside their own territory. Even from the viewpoint of Finnish society the City Sámi are a special community of their own, being a rare national urban minority, whose origin cannot be compared to immigrant ethnic groupings that have arrived in the Helsinki area from other countries.

 

The concept of ethnicity (< gr. ethnos), which has only appeared in research literature over the last thirty years, is vague in meaning and to some extent also lacks general acceptance. Common-sense would suggest that ethnicity refers to a particular group of characteristics that set one group apart from others. Sometimes it is erroneously used to mean a minority culture. Ethnicity not only refers to minorities, but can also define those cultures that comprise a majority. An ethnic community has also been considered to include, in some anthropological studies, those local communities representing a traditional way of life, whose material culture, and so forth, has only a few changing elements or which has remained relatively uninfluenced by other cultures. I consider this view to be mistaken, because no culture has ever remained completely unaltered or isolated from the causes of change. In my opinion ethnicity is found in a group which, by some expression of its own culture, can be distinguished from surrounding groups. This is cultural distinctiveness.

 

The above definition does not nevertheless clarify ethic totality in any detail. The cultural anthropologist Anja Nygren has provided a definition of ethnicity as consisting of five factors, the importance of which vary according to the group in question. In what follows I shall elucidate, with the help of a diagram, on my own study of City Sámi ethnicity, which was carried out during the years 1995 and 1996.

 

COMMON ORIGIN

 

COMMON ETHNIC

CULTURE ETHNICITY GROUP IDENTITY

 

ETHNIC OTHER-GROUP CHARACTERISTICS

 

INTERACTION RELATIONSHIP TO OTHERS

 

Figure: Anja Nygren’s definition of ethnic criteria

 

The central element of ethnicity is a common origin. The City Sámi have a common origin, both biologically and historically. This is particularly true of those who have come from the Sámi territory and both of whose parents are themselves Sámi. In such a case Sámi origin is a natural part of Sámi identity, which need not be contemplated and is not a matter of personal choice. For those City Sámi who have been born outside the Sámi territory and only one of whose parents has, in general, been Sámi, the concept of common origin lies at a symbolic level. These people have been brought up in a Finnish environment, and so also exemplify a Finnish origin. For the City Sámi the signs of a common origin are, for example, the Sámi homeland, the ethnic, traditional way of life and the pervasive history of the subjection of the Sámi people to colonialism. These features unite the Sámi nation - in Helsinki also.

 

A common culture is a concrete example of the characteristics of a group, both for the members themselves and for those outside the group. For the City Sámi the special attributes of the Sámi culture - and its representation, such as reindeer herding, the Sámi style of singing, their dress - exist at a symbolic level, and particular cultural features have become attached to the urban Sámi especially as a result of the activities of the City-Sámit Association (City-Sámit-yhdistys), with its approximately 80 members. City Sámi features can be described as annual festivities open to all Sámi people living in the metropolis, and the jealously guarded maintenance and study of the Sámi identity with the aid of literature, for example.

 

Since language should not be forgotten as a cultural symbol, many of the City Sámi strive to uphold their knowledge of their Sámi language through speaking it or learning it. Whilst participating in the activities of the Association I noticed that conversation often has to be interpreted into Finnish, since there were those present who either did not have sufficient knowledge of Sámi, or had no knowledge at all. Those people who had moved from the Sámi territory often spoke fluent Sámi or at least understood spoken Sámi. On the other hand, the so-called second generation Sámi or those born in the south did not know the language. The significance of language for national identity is, nevertheless, undisputed. One of those I interviewed even knew that without a knowledge of Sámi that person would not be able to wear the Sámi dress.

 

The City Sámi and, in particular, the activities of their Association are distinguished by a powerful ethno-political character, something which is nowadays a generally associated with Sámi identity. The activity of the City Sámi is concerned both with the strengthening of the ethnic identify of their own group as well as with dispensing information to outside groups.

 

Ethnic group identity is an essential for the forming of an ethnic community. As far as the City Sámi are concerned I don’t think we can speak about an ethic community in a specific sense, because not all the local

Sámi participate in community activity or maintain contact with other Sámi people. Nor do they recognise themselves as possessing any City Sámi spirit, any "we-ness", rather they identify themselves with the Sámi nation as a whole. The City Sámi are an ethnic group, without any clear internal structure of their own. Within the community a group identity born from the powerful personal identity of the individual is to be found. Nevertheless, the activities of the Association are by no means able to reach all the Sámi people in the Helsinki area. Some of those I interviewed declared that they are not interested in the activities of the Association, since they have their own "channels" through which they retain their Sámi identity.

 

Ethnicity need not fulfil all the criteria expounded here. We can start to speak of ethnicity when the criterion of common origin is combined with an infinity of other elements. For example, a group with a recognised common origin whose members consider themselves as belonging together and feel themselves to be apart from others (ethnic group identity) can, with a number of reservations, be regarded as an ethnic group. But for this very reason they cannot be unconditionally considered to be a community.

 

An article published in 1969 by Fredrik Barth and, in particular, the introduction written by Barth is considered a break-through in the study of ethnicity. In his introduction Barth emphasises the significance of the boundaries between ethnic groups as an essential criterion of ethnicity. The principle thought is that the content of groups may change, but the boundaries between them that remain produce distinctive groups. Even later studies have recognised the role of these boundaries as a significant part of the theoretical development of the ethnic concept. Nygren, and others also, place the boundaries of ethnic groups inside the concept of ethnic interaction. Ethnic interaction is a wider concept than Barth’s ethic boundaries. Interaction takes place 1) between the members of an ethnic group and 2) between separate groups.

 

The City Sámi maintain contact both within their own group and with their kinsfolk in the Sámi territories and elsewhere. Traditionally the special significance of kin relationships is an important feature of Sámi identity. On the other hand, the activities of the Association are a manifest and concrete field for the group’s internal and external interaction: the Association is in close contact with its members, for example it distributes membership cards, but it also maintains contact with other Sámi associations at both a national and international level. In addition to this, it acts as a spokesman for the Sámi people in society at large. Within the Association there is also a definition of ethnic boundaries: the origin of some Sámi members has been put in question and this has led to further consideration of the essence of City Sámi identity. A continuous defining of Sámi identity is also taking place between the northern and southern Sámi, because those Sámi people living in the north may sometimes regard the City Sámi as "less" Sámi than they are on account of the City Sámi people’s place of residence.

 

The City Sámi are a distinctive ethnic group, different from others. Group distinctiveness occurs when 1) a group considers itself exceptional and distinct from others and 2) also when others legitimate and recognise the group in question as distinctive. The City Sámi are different from Finnish people in certain respects and form a minority. Nevertheless, the minority status need not, in my opinion, be a negative feature in the case of the City Sámi. For them, as a consequence of the minority - majority state of affairs, retaining the vital force of Sámi culture is crucial. However, during the 1990’s it became more and more acceptable to belong to a minority in Finland, and this has improved the status of the City Sámi and aided them in their endeavours to retain their Sámi identity in a traditionally unfamiliar environment.

 

The Sámi people in the Helsinki area live within two cultures, the Sámi and the Finnish. They are at the core of Finnish society and far from their native territory. Their environment is multicultural. These circumstances emphasise the powerful symbolic meaning of Sámi culture and tradition, a natural physical and mental continuum for which the capital offers no substitute. Even the name the City Sámi have given themselves contains two cultural components, that of urban ethnicity and that of the ethnicity they hold as their own.

 

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