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Irja Seurujärvi-Kari

Irja Anneli Seurujärvi-Kari
Born November 21, 1947, Utsjoki.

Doctor of Philosophy (Finno-Ugric Languages), 2012, University of Helsinki
Master of Arts (English Philology), 1974, University of Oulu

Lecturer, Sámi Language and Culture, 1986-, University of Helsinki

Researcher, Institute for the Languages of Finland, 1985/6
Head, Utsjoki upper secondary school for Sámi, 1978-85
Lecturer, Sámi language, 1976/7, University of Oulu
Lector, English and Swedish, Ivalo comprehensive school, 1974-76

Research interests
Sámi and indigenous rights movements, identity politics and rights of indigenous peoples, etymological and ontological issues for indigenous peoples, Sámi languages, endangered languages and revitalisation.

Publications, research projects and other academic activities

Photo: Ulla Aikio-Puoskari
Written by Irja Seurujärvi-Kari, Kaija Hartikainen (ed.)
Translated by John Calton

Knowledge of indigenous peoples and cultural heritage makes for sustainable and equitable environmental development

Many indigenous people settle in environments which are among the world’s richest in terms of biodiversity. Indigenous peoples live in 85 per cent of the globe’s areas designated as protected. The preservation of these areas ensures natural diversity and has a global impact on climate.

With the apparent climate change, the Arctic has been a focus of interest for states and corporations hoping to exploit the region for its potential supplies of oil and gas and other natural resources. At present however these industrial projects have stalled owing to the poor prospects for exploitation.

On March 13, 2015, the Finnish parliament decided to postpone the ratification of the ILO convention 169 until after the next government has been formed. The most important aspect of the agreement is to protect the indigenous peoples’ way of life as a distinctive indigenous group and increase their opportunity to have decision-making power in the issues that affect them.

In the Nordic countries, the Sámi peoples’ rights as an indigenous people and their cultural autonomy through the Sámi parliament are recognised in law, but in many other countries the matter is not settled, even though the ILO convention has been ratified. The problem with ratification in Finland is that it has not been figured out how land rights are to be made to work in practice. The question remains if it is enough for the Sámi culture’s livelihood and reindeer herding that there is a right to use the land rather than a right to own the land, as is the case at present.

Natural diversity is inseparable from the linguistic and cultural diversity of indigenous peoples. These aspects are indivisible and mutually restorative. Traditional knowledge links nature and the means of livelihood to spiritual and aesthetic knowledge of culture.

The significance of language for indigenous peoples

A central aspect of indigenous people’s knowledge is language. Language preservation and revitalisation is crucial to indigenous people’s cultures and protection. Cultural knowledge on the environment is closely connected to language. Expressions of knowledge and nature are hardly imaginable without the medium of a language.

Current knowledge on the relationship between language, culture and the environment is transmitted and constructed through histories, oral traditions, art, sacred sites and their naming, rites and rituals. Knowledge is also disseminated through new cultural rituals and practices, such as the Sámi National Day (February 6th), land and environment use and in that connection the collective memory of a precise constructed cultural land- and mindscape as well as the language related to traditional forms of livelihood, such as reindeer husbandry, reindeer and grazing of the animals.

Language, culture and welfare are also mutually dependent. If, for instance, the balance between indigenous peoples’ lifestyle, culture and language is in some way disrupted, there may be unfortunate long-term social and economic consequences. In the worst instance, these people lose their sense of identity and hence their will to live, as has happened and is still happening in many places, including the Russian Sámi.  Even today they don’t receive support from the rest of society to maintain and revive their own culture.

The right to your own language is a human right

Indigenous people have become more active guardians of their own culture and language, and they no longer wish to see themselves as victims. In the last six decades the (Nordic) Sámi movement, together with other indigenous peoples, have demanded that they are treated justly and equally with other peoples.

Sámi movement has also been active in taking possession of their own language and culture. This means that endangered languages have been modernized and taken into use in the home, the school and elsewhere in social life. Language has gradually become a source of empowerment and integrity for the individual and community, as well as a central cultural value.

As for other Sámi cultural heritage, demands have been made that artefacts such as the Sámi Shaman drums be returned to Sámi museums. Knowledge of indigenous peoples is relevant if that knowledge is appreciated, practised and vitalised.

The Sámi languages have the advantage that they are taught and researched in the context of Finno-Ugrian language studies. I myself teach mostly northern Sámi and give lecture courses on Sámi and indigenous peoples studies. Over the years I have also arranged courses in other Sámi languages, taught by native speakers.

This has nurtured the body of expertise needed for these languages, and they now work as researchers and teachers around the country and develop teaching material. The synchronic study of the Sámi languages is more actively pursued nowadays – the language is no longer viewed as dead, a relic of the past, but rather as a living part of humankind’s cultural heritage. Sámi studies stress the diversity and heterogeneity of Sámi languages and cultures.

The study of the relation between language, culture and environment in indigenous studies raises the issue of postcolonial studies, which aims to problematize colonial authority, re-examine relations between peoples as well as take into account the various hybridities and intermediate states. In this way historical power relations can be exposed and our understanding and the normalization of our ways of seeing the world can be enhanced.

Human rights run through all aspects of Sámi and indigenous peoples’ studies. An understanding of human rights lends to all areas of the studies a more profound perspective and new interpretative horizons. According to international human rights conventions, indigenous peoples have a right to language, culture and the environment together with their preservation and development. Fundamental questions of human rights are now put forward more robustly than previously from the viewpoint of the indigenous peoples and minorities.

The Ailigas fell in the town of Karigasniemi, Utsjoki municipality. Photo: Irja Seurujärvi-Kari.​
The Ailigas fell in the town of Karigasniemi, Utsjoki municipality. Photo: Irja Seurujärvi-Kari.​


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