I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The more I learn, the less certain I am about things. Right when I think that I have things figured out, I go and travel to Sápmi to spend time in an immersive learning experience with Sámi communities that challenge all my notions of what I perceive as “true”. Being kind, open, and willing to learn are the three qualities that I began the trip with and the three that I will leave with. Everything else is under consideration because wisdom comes in many forms. My goals of reprogramming my colonized mind have continued during this global experience.
I am a conservation science and management major within the environmental studies program at University of Washington. I wanted to see how the Sámi have managed to survive and thrive in a part of the world (for 14,000ish years!), that to many of us from the United States, imagine as a barren tundra landscape that would be impossible to do anything in. For many months, the sun doesn’t shine; the aurora borealis illuminates the imagination. For a few summer months, that sun shines at all hours of the day; birds sing at midnight and the stars are left for the imagination.
My professional goals have not changed from this experience but rather have been reinforced. My focus has shifted to be more sensitive and supportive to indigenous worldviews that are not my own. In the United States, 1% of the total population are native. Knowing this, I felt encouraged me to seek experiences at a global level before working the rest of my life in a place I am privileged to call home. The connection to land that I have had since I was a small child in rural Illinois is often validated by the worldviews of people who value life over capitalism despite the fact that I myself am not indigenous at all. Being a product of immigration from all across the globe, I sought knowledge from these communities that may inform me on how I can be a better indigenous ally throughout my career as a land manager, conservationist, and member of civic society.
Because after all, these indigenous peoples and their communities ARE STILL HERE. The colonized mindset of western thought not only continues to find ways to forcefully engage in land acquisition, cultural appropriation, and ethnic erasure but also tends to paint the picture that these people are in the past. Moreover, I became more aware that this poisonous, imperialist worldview assumes that unless indigenous peoples are living in “teepees”, wearing animal pelts, not using electricity, or whatever, then they must not be traditionally indigenous anymore. Does the colonizer really think that a people who have constantly innovated for 14,000 years would stop innovating during a time in history when innovation has spiked to unimaginable heights? This is insensitive and naïve, and this fact has been made crystal clear to me after this month of study.
To many Americans and other economic “winners” who have read this far, I imagine that their blood pressure has increased and they are formulating a few arguments in response to what I am writing. To me, that is a step in the right direction even though it seems counterintuitive. The more we actually engage in dialogue about these matters, the more visible these matters become in public perception. Why didn’t everyone know what was happening at Standing Rock in South Dakota? Why doesn’t everyone know that Sámi have established a moratorium along the biggest river between Norway and Sweden to protest environmental and human rights violations? Not enough people are aware of it, so they cannot engage in dialogue as humans should. I’m not saying that we have to dismantle our current system entirely and I’m not saying I do not appreciate all of the advantages and comforts afforded to me as an American. I’m just affirming that there is a lot of work to do to change our world to one where humans, especially those whose ancestral lands have been stolen from them, continue to be swept under the rug in the interest of capital gain by exploiting natural resources and to build national pride.
Once again, I cannot be certain of anything. But neither can anyone reading this blog. We are only human, and the totality of existence exceed our capabilities to comprehend all of its intricacies. However, it is an absolutely certainty that last week climate in and around Tromsø where I was staying had the highest night time temperature in recorded history. The gulf stream is projected to completely changed direction due to human-induced climate change which will decimate any change of maintaining agriculture along the Arctic coast in winter. Windmill fields are being protested in the Tundra because of how they will disrupt reindeer herding patterns that have been ongoing for millennia. A short anecdote I will share is when a wonderful Sámi couple told me how the Norwegian government offered their people $10,000,000 for ownership of a mountain that they wanted just so they could tear it apart with machines for mining. The Sámi response was that absolutely no amount of money will ever equal the value of a MOUNTAIN, and a sacred mountain at that.
I will leave the readers with this final idea, and keep in mind that I, myself, am a straight white male who is a product of immigration that seeks employment with the government to manage the lands we, as human animals, rely on: Imagine if every national and state park was no longer managed solely by the American government but instead by indigenous peoples who have historically inhabited those spaces for thousands and thousands of years while being supported by the American government financially through taxation derived from people just like you and me? Do you really think things would devolve and we would lose the “grandeur” that makes those places the aesthetically beautiful and enlightening spaces we have come to think of them? And finally, how would you feel if people started finding pleasure in hiking up and down churches, temples, and other built environments that are holy to a certain culture just so they could take a picture of themselves at the top for everyone on the internet to see?
THIS is how you do college.
“how worthless even the most beautiful words…how fragile what one secretly feels…it was not the wind…you did not hear the bird…it was I…my thoughts” – Neils-Aslak Valkeapää, Sámi artist and activist, from his book Trekways of the Wind.