Skolt Sámi celebrate 60th anniversary of resettlement in Sevettijärvi in Finnish Lapland
By Kirsikka Moring in Sevettijärvi
The Skolt Sámi or Skolts are a prominent Orthodox ethnic group in Finnish Lapland.
During the Winter War (1939) and the Continuation War (1941-1944), the Skolt Sámi were evacuated twice from their original homelands close to Petsamo (nowadays Pechenga) to other parts of Finland.
After leaving behind burned villages, slaughtered reindeer, and facing deportations conducted by the Red Army, the Skolt Sámi eventually settled in the villages of Nellim and Sevettijärvi in the municipality of Inari, in the far north of Finnish Lapland.
Last weekend the Skolt Sámi celebrated the 60th anniversary of their resettlement in the area, and nobody could be bothered to cry over the wounds of the past any longer.
Instead, they wanted to discuss the present. Nearly 1,000 Sámi from all over the world and from various parts of Finland had gathered in a festival tent in the yard of the 60-year-old school of Sevettijärvi, in order to exchange the latest information about the Skolts’ way of life.
Shoes were clattering on the dance floor when pairs were performing quadrilles, and a rare variety of yoik called leudd, a long, epic poem, was heard in many versions, including the rock version by Tiina Sanila, known as the Madonna of the Skolt Sámi.
The festive dresses were like from a catwalk show of Sámi couture: broadcloth, baize, silk, and pearls.
The tent was glowing like a rainbow, and people were stomping their feet on the floor full of joy and hope. The festival had been built night in and night out, the dresses had been given finishing touches still in the small hours, and skilled cooks from across Finland had prepared the meals.
The efforts were crowned by an important event. Tarja Halonen, the President of the Republic of Finland, arrived at the festival, expressing her support for the revival of Skolt Sámi and Skolt culture.
Today, the number of Skolts in Finland is approximately 600, while only 250 of them live in Sevettijärvi.
Their lot in Finnish history has been as traumatic and tragic as that of the Karelians, but Skolts are a silent people who have not wanted to discuss their past in public.
A large number of young people also turned up at the festival, but only few of them live in the north. They have come from their student cities Rovaniemi, Oulu, and Helsinki, or from abroad.
However, they would like to return to their childhood scenery.
”There is nothing whatsoever in the south”, declare Wille-Akseli Feodoroff, Tinja Semenoff, and Lasse Lehtola in their newly pressed Sámi costumes.
They are offspring of the ”lost generation”. Their parents were bullied at school, they did not dare to speak the Sámi language anywhere, let alone to teach it to their children.
”But we are proud of our Sámi origins”, the young people say. ”We do not conceal anything, and we speak Sámi always when it is possible”, they add.
The children of two nearly extinct Sámi languages discuss with each other in Inari Sámi and Skolt Sámi.
”They are slightly different languages, but we do not mind as we manage to understand each other ”, the young Sámi say.
In ordinary life, young people are not much seen in the village. In the most recent class picture, the number of smiling children could be counted on two hands.
However, even though young people are moving away, the area is trying to cope with the situation.
The Border Guard left, and the only jobs in sight are in Norway.
Moreover, it is not easy to find wives for young reindeer herders.
Bachelor jokes make nobody laugh here. The most devastating consequences of alienation and fear are suicides - intended or unintended.
Some people drink and destroy their livers, while some others no longer touch the bottle at all.
The legendary Sevetti bar has become strangely quiet. Only some peaked caps forgotten in the coat-rack tell that life in the bar has once been a lot livelier.
Veikko Feodoroff, the representative of the Skolt Sámi, hopes that Sevettiärvi’s Skolt culture would show its strength when a new cultural centre is built. In 2008, a foundation was set up to bring the project home.
The traditional know-how of old and young skilled persons should be gathered in one place in order to create new synergy.
Today, Skolt Sámi are celebrating and looking forward to the future.
”There is quiet hope”, says Pirjo Semenoff, who is in charge of an immersion programme for Skolt children in Ivalo.
Her children know that the Finnish word tutti (”dummy”, "pacifier") is njiimtök in Skolt Sámi.
The children learn fast. Within a year they have learned enough to use Skolt Sámi as their everyday language.
”But there is a risk that at school the use of Skolt Sámi could discontinue. Who would teach children how to write in Skolt Sámi?” Semenoff worries.
In honour of the jubilee year, a new Skolt Sámi grammar was published. While a new spelling book is being waited for, teachers who are skilled in Skolt Sámi are also being sought.
No such teachers are to graduate anytime soon.
But one should not give up. The Sevetti school is looking forward to the first matriculation examination in Skolt Sámi on record - in three years’ time.
WHO? The Skolt Sámi
The number of Skolt Sámi in Finland is approximately 600, of whom 250 live in the area of Sevettijärvi.
Until the 1940s, most of the Skolt Sámi lived in the Kola Peninsula. When Pechenga (Petsamo in Finnish) was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1944, the Skolt Sámi were moved to Inari.
In the period from 1949 to 1952, the Skolt Sámi were relocated to Nellim and Sevettijärvi.
The Skolt Sámi were given a school of their own in 1949, an ABC in 1972, and electricity in 1979.
The main industry of the Skolt Sámi is reindeer husbandry.
The Skolt Sámi are the most throughly examined and researched part of the Finnish population, whether it comes to their health, their genes, or their language and culture.
Helsingin Sanomat / Edited from an article first published in print 31.8.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Sápmi - a pale blue winter´s dream in the far north (20.1.2009)
Rapper uses Sámi language to express defiance (8.2.2005)
Skolt Sámi (Wikipedia)
Pechenga (formerly Petsamo) (Wikipedia)
Tiina Sanila (Wikipedia)
KIRSIKKA MORING / Helsingin Sanomat