Enontekiö, a northern Wounded Knee? (Helsingin Sanomat 21 Jan 1996)

By Marjatta Palismaa (translated by Pekka Sammallahti). Published in Helsingin Sanomat January 21st 1996. This letter to the editor by the late Marjatta Palismaa has been published in Fáktalávvu with a permission of her daughters. 

(Voin lukea tämän saman, Helsingin Sanomissa 21.1.1996 julkaistun tekstin suomeksi täältä.)

I came to Enontekiö by foot in 1949, via Lemmenjoki and Skiehččanjohka to Peltovuoma village before the road to Njunnás/Nunnanen was opened. I have been a permanent resident in Enontekiö for 35 years and for almost 33 years the Finnish wife of a Saami man. My husband and children are Saami but I’m not. It’s never been a problem to us, quite to the contrary.

I’ve seen continuous disparagement of and grudge against the Saami throughout the years of our marriage. Our family has been threatened with shooting, me and our little girls with rape. In my occupation as a teacher I was reprimanded of being too sympathetic to the Saami. I have amassed an incredible amount of information about abuse, even crimes, against the Saami. All of them committed by the local Finns.

We used to do an annual survey of the Saami pupils in our school for instruction arrangements and statistics. Their proportion varied between 10-15 per cent of the total number of pupils and it agreed with the number of Saami in the Enontekiö municipality.

In the 1960s the Saami began to attend to their rights and organized a small association called Johtti Sápmelaččat. The Saami Parliament, of which my husband and at present my daughter are members, has been active for 24 years. From this year on it will bear the name Sámediggi/Saamelaiskäräjät in harmony with the corresponding organizations in other Nordic countries (Sámediggi/Sameting in Norway and Sweden).

Throughout these years none of the local Finns have reported any family relationship with the Saami. On the contrary, this kind of disgrace was to be kept strictly secret.

The present situation in Enontekiö is completely incomprehensible. A short time ago the Enontekiö municipality decided to dissociate itself from the municipalities of the Saami native region. At last, the Saami were about to get a legally established cultural autonomy. At last they would have a legally established right to their language – these people whose mouths were washed with soap if they spoke Saami to each other at school. Many of these Saami, middle-aged or older at present, found their language so low in value that they wanted to save their children from similar experiences. In many families the Saami language receded to a secondary place. Now, at the last moment, people have legal rights to use it, and in terms of teaching materials and school instruction the situation has improved all the time.

The Enontekiö Finns went out to demonstration rallies in Helsinki, the Finnish capital. There they stood on the steps in front of the Finnish Parliament House with their slogans: “The Saami want their own state. Don’t pass the Saami law. We will be deprived our human dignity. They’ll take everything from us. The Saami are oppressors. The Saami are racists.”

How could a small deprived ethnic group of 15 per cent be able to do this? The demonstrators didn’t substantiate their claims nor did they explain them. They only threatened to resort to harder measures, to violence and start a civil war and take up arms. They organized their own society, Enontekiön lappalaisten perinne- ja kulttuuriyhdistys (Society for the promotion of the traditions and culture of the Enontekiö Lapps). Later on the word Enontekiö was dropped and it was made an open society. They declared themselves Lapps. That term had become free when the Saami in Enontekiö started calling themselves with a name based on their own language – sápmelaččat in Saami, saamelaiset in Finnish – in accordance with the other Nordic countries.

The fight against the Saami was camouflaged in a way. It was generally believed in the south of the country that both terms designate the same ethnic group. The Neo-Saami published a pamphlet called Kiisa, clumsy by its expression but also awkward, untruthful and misleading. It was released in 10,000 copies and distributed free of charge all over the province of Lapland, the Helsinki railway station and the main tourist attractions in the north. The tourists in Levi and Saariselkä must have felt a prick of conscience because of the “Lapps” were treated so badly.

The Neo-Lapps registered their societies and released official statements which were readily interpreted in the south of the country as statements by the Saami. They received full support from the municipality to their struggle – as they called this total annihilation of the Saami. The municipality financed activities which included armed intimidation, psychological violence and misleading of the public.

After a while the Enontekiö municipality withdraw its decision to dissociate itself from the Saami municipalities. It became obvious that the EU will accept the rights of minority peoples. Rumors were spread among the public that the Saami are going to drown into EU millions. It was imperative to gain access to these riches, by force if necessary, and the whole population of the municipality were renamed Lapps. The latest scheme is a collective claim to Saaminess directly through the Ministry of Justice.

To my knowledge the Enontekiö municipality has not given an account as to how it used the money it received a few years ago for improvement of Saami situation. Is this the purpose of the rage for making the “Lapp”activities seem legal minority work?

I have always found it frustrating how little people in the south of the country really know about the Saami. They seem only a kind of paraphernalia, fit to embellish varying projects together with Santa Claus – as long as they remain silent. With their help or by donning their clothing colorful publications are produced and the advertisement people proclaim Sea-Lapland and Real-Lapland.

A story I heard already 40 years ago is about a Saami from Norway who settled down in the Peltojärvi community and was met with a Finn who killed him, took his reindeer, homestead, widow and his name. He went on living on the land and with the name of the man he killed. Is this culture of violence the cultural legacy which the present generation of the local Finns presses ahead with?

Is their goal a northern Wounded Knee, a northern Tuzla? Already the threatening with violence shows how far they are from the Saami. The Saami have always been peaceful receders. Even this time a substantial part of them recedes rather than speaks out. That’s the traditional way.

Enontekiö is the world of opposites, the land of the everlasting midnight sun, the land of the long twilight of the polar night. There has been arctic hysteria here in the past as well, religious ecstasy. A couple of generations ago a lay preacher called Korpela excited people to indecencies to the extent that they lost their minds and in the end waited for the Ark of the Covenant on the ice of the Tornio Lake. The same kind of blind paranoiac faith possesses a big part of the Enontekiö Finns at the moment.

In the 1960s the Saami artist Ailu Valkeapää who attended the teacher seminar asked me to inquire of the dean of the Enontekiö congregation if it were possible to sing a hymn in Saami in the Enontekiö church on St Mary’s day, the Saami holy day, or just a verse of it. I can still remember the astonishment of the honorable dean. You can’t do such a thing! What would the bishop say of all people?

There are still those who tell the Saami minister that even one Saami word in church is too many. The Saami are segregated into services of their own. They are grateful to the Saami minister and the minister of the border district for being able to hear their own language in their own church and for being able to sing from their own hymnal.

Why can’t we do the same way as they do in other Nordic countries and municipalities of the Saami area? We could have services together for everybody in both languages at the same time? Should the church not teach love for one’s neighbor and bring people closer to each other?

In the other Nordic countries there is no such thing as this frenzy to annihilate a small minority. There, too, people have lived side by side for centuries, mutual family relations have been created in the same way as in Finland.

How could a long-since dead ancestor turn a Saami from a Finn who has never confessed to the connection? One of the ancestral branches of my mother’s family includes one of the daughters of king Eric the Fourteenth. It doesn’t make me or my daughters princesses. My self-esteem doesn’t suffer from the fact that I am a non-Saami member of a Saami family.

What I suffer from is the shame I feel of belonging to a majority people which treats a ethnic minority in an as mean and paranoiac way as this. Furthermore I suffer from the fact that a fanatic group of people born mainly in two villages casts an ugly shadow also on those local Finns who have a healthy self-esteem and have always lived in peace and friendship with the Saami.

It may be a temporary phenomenon in line with the “Iriadamant Indians” in Kittilä. They, too, followed an illusion-ridden leader and were Wanna-Be-Indians. At that time I wondered when it will be Wanna-Be-Lapps’ turn. You didn’t have to wait for long. And they didn’t come from afar. They were here already.

The author is a retired language teacher in Enontekiö.

HS Tätä mieltä 21.1.1996: Enontekiöstäkö Wounded Knee?

HS Tätä mieltä 21.1.1996: Enontekiöstäkö Wounded Knee?