On the Christmas eve, we went to see my grandmother at the seniors’ home in Utsjoki. Inside the building, we walked through a lounge area where the TV was on. Nobody was watching it but the program caught our eyes walking by. It was a Finnish Christmas program, an animation for children. What caught our eyes was a character dressed in a Sami gákti (traditional outfit) holding a Sami drum, govadas. As there is a sad history of stereotypical portrayals and representations of the Sami in the Finnish media – a history that hasn’t quite ended – we had to stop and check the program out.
We only saw the end of the program, but that was enough to see that the sorry history continues. The character dressed in a Sami gákti turned out to be a shaman, an old and ugly man who couldn’t remember a song. He was running either away or after somebody and used the drum as a toboggan to come down a snowy hill. (This already gave a hint that this wasn’t a story interested in representing the Sami culture in an appropriate manner. The Sami drum, govadas, is a sacred object that depicts the Sami cosmos on its surface, used by only certain people, noaidis, to ask advice from the spirit world. Most of them were burned or stolen by Christian ministers and other representatives during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the Christianization of the Sami was most intense.)
On the bottom of the hill, the drum started to play on its own with the help of a bone. The shaman remembered the song and started singing it. At this stage, Santa Claus together his elves had arrived in his bull reindeer. Looked like they had been chasing the Sami shaman. Santa’s angry reindeer charged toward the shaman who ran away and fell from a cliff. Santa and his helpers cheered because they had got hold of the drum and as one of the elves put it, “Now the shaman will no longer be nuisance to anybody.” The happy end.
We were all shocked. Merry Christmas Finnish style? Chase the Sami away and steal their cultural property? So this is the Christmas message for Finnish children who learn hardly anything about the Sami in school? Has anything changed from the days when the Sami noaidis or shamans were persecuted by the Church and their drums stolen and taken to museums around the world? How could this kind of programming still be possible at the end of 2007? Is Finland really such a backwater that even today, they don’t have to even pretend to be multicultural and politically correct at least in children’s programs? That the message in the twentyfirst century for kids still is that let’s get rid of the nuisance called Sami and everything will be fine? That’s certainly the message one gets reading the local Northern Finnish newspapers that seek the blur the history and the concepts of Saminess and indigeneity.
A conspiracy theorist would say this is how they make sure that the general zeitgeist in Finland remains anti-Sami and that the Sami rights won’t be recognized even by the future generations, whose textbooks still today grossly omit the Sami, their history, culture or contemporary issues – in other words, it is TV programs like the one we happened to see that are one of the very few sources of “information” about the Sami for kids in Finland.
The Sami are a nuisance with their demands, but hey, let’s get their drums (and other cultural objects) and turn them into best selling tourist items (made in China). One only has to travel south to the Arctic Circle to see this reality, especially at the Christmas time when the tourist companies turn in big bucks with plane-loads arriving from abroad to see Santa and buy those exotic souvenirs and Christmas gifts to take home. In the one massive Christmas mania, it all becomes a big blur: Santa, reindeer and the Sami, to an extent that many go home thinking that the Sami are indeed Santa’s little helpers as they are often represented by the tourist industry. Merry Christmas Finnish style!
PS. After reading this post, one of my Canadian friends wrote to me: “That story about the tv program is incredible, the show sounds like those propaganda films from the 50s. I assume that’s a gov’t run public station – that is SO not okay…”