Last week a conference titled “Power and Resistance: What is the impact of gender concerning relations between minorities and majorities?” was held at the University of Oslo. The titles of the keynotes reflected the timely themes of the conference: feminist coalition building, power relations and minority policy in Norway, multicultural and gender equality challenges, feminist responses to Muslim women. While “minority women” – (i.e., women of colour, a term apparently non-existent in the Nordic feminist/anti-racist parlance) – were fairly well represented, there was no mention, never mind presence, of Sami women on the plenaries.
I attended the conference with another Sami woman. Both of us had contacted ourselves the organizers and wanted to participate. I had asked if I could present a paper which turned out to be the only presentation about the Sami at the entire two-day conference (I can’t confirm but I’m pretty sure that Sami didn’t enter into any of the discussions at the workshops either). I was slotted for a ten-minute presentation at one of the workshops on citizenship.
I started my presentation by pointing out the lack of Sami presence despite the topic was minority-majority relations in Norway and the Nordic countries. Considering that most Sami live in what is Norway today, and that the Sami have much stronger presence in public discourses and debates in Norway than, say, Finland, isn’t it surprising that a feminist conference on minority-majority relations doesn’t even refer to the Sami as a token recognition? I also noted that it’s surprising, considering there are about 5000 Sami living in Oslo, and that because of that, Oslo is referred to as the biggest Sami town. (This contemporary Sami reality reflects to those of other indigenous peoples in North America, for example, where more than half live in urban areas.)
After my presentation, one of the conference organizers had gone to the other Sami woman and said to her that in her opinion, they had done pretty good job because there were two Sami women attending the conference! No kidding, she was serious, in spite of the fact that my friend and I had actively sought our own participation by getting in touch with the organizers. But really, is two Sami women enough at a Nordic conference on minority-majority relations in Norway in 2008? When the Sami have been completely forgotten, erased and made invisible in the entire discourse? Maybe the keynote from the US went home thinking that Norway indeed is a homogeneous nation only with some immigrants and refugees but without that “pesky indigenous problem” complicating matters?
In many other places it has been especially women’s studies which have been carving out critical, oppositional spaces also for indigenous women. I was reminded once again that this was still not the case in the Nordic countries – ah, those the model nations of gender and social equality for the rest of the world to follow. Even the King of Norway has recognized the fact that Norway is established on the territory of two peoples, the Norwegians and the Sami! So why do the Sami remain so invisible in these kind of critical discussions and discourses about social justice and indeed, social equality? I was shocked and appalled – such a glaring omission of indigenous peoples would have raised hackles in many other places. I know that in Canada (and perhaps in other places too) indigenous women and women of colour have forged strong enough coalitions that in a similar situation, women of colour would have pointed out the exclusion and demanded the presence of Aboriginal women.
As far as I am concerned, we haven’t even started to investigate Sami-Nordic relations, never mind from a gender perspective. Neither have we established strategic alliances for stronger democracies and social justice with people of colour. Isn’t it because we ourselves don’t consider these issues important, or is it as my friend noted, that we are tired of knocking on the doors of the establishment, reminding year in year out like broken records that ‘what about the Sami?’? How many of us do that reminding on a regular basis, or even occasionally? Where were those 5000 Sami who live in Oslo and of whom certainly many would’ve had something to contribute to the main question of the conference? Are we so invisible and excluded because we are invisible in a crowd of white people?
One of the plenary speakers, an activist immigrant woman, pointed out how she was disappointed to see mostly white faces in the audience. I sat in the audience and wondered if she was talking about me too and whether she remembered that there is an indigenous people and a national minority – the Sami – in Norway who is, alas, very white? How complicit does that make us? There are so many questions that we haven’t even started to ask, never mind discuss. And where and how can we start when places like the great conference in Oslo seem like a wrong arena because people simply wouldn’t know what to do, what to say, and thus, most likely, be offended? Where is the power and resistance of Sami women? And how does it look like?