Thursday, March 14, 2013

Nomads in the Age of the Nation-State

by Josh Erb

On Tuesday, February 12, visiting scholar Troy Storfjell presented a lecture entitled “Until the Sun Returns: Sámi Cultural Resilience.” As the title suggests, the lecture focused on the historical struggles and oppressions faced by the nomadic people known as the Sámi that inhabit the lands of northern Scandinavia.

This particular lecture, as well as the body of work Prof. Storfjell discussed, is particularly interesting for two important reasons. The first is that Prof. Storfjell is himself a native of the Sámi people. The second is that he is a firm advocate of what he refers to as “indigenous methodologies” and conscientiously situates his own origins within the context of his study and debate.

Prof. Storfjell decided to adopt this approach based on the methodology used in the first written account of the Sámi people. This account, which was written by Johan Turi (pictured below) in 1910, constitutes the first account of the Sámi people written in the Sámi language. And in it Turi does exactly what Prof. Storfjell does with his research, he situates himself within the people he is studying. From a purely academic point of view, this decision to “go native” would be considered a rather large faux pas by many. However, there are several contemporary scholars who have begun to advocate this approach, as it has the potential to provide new perspectives and insight into the discourse on oppressed peoples throughout the world.

The professor’s lecture was not only very interesting in its subject material, but also very thought provoking in the implications of its structure and presentation. What is the value of presenting this information from the biased context of your cultural heritage and identity? Is the fact that Prof. Storfjell openly admits to his biases and passion for the subject matter a point of strength or of weakness? These questions and more arise when one is faced with such a presentation. This is especially true in regards to a study of the Sámi, a people whose native lands stretch across four contemporary nation-states and who have faced their fair share of oppression over the last few centuries.

My own opinion is that this methodology is not only the right one to adopt when addressing an issue like this, but that it is the only one capable of providing an accurate depiction of the subject matter. Put another way, who better to explain the history and cultural struggles of a people than a native of that same people? It is precisely the passion and biases that Prof. Storfjell carries because of his heritage that presents us with the clearest picture of the Sámi people and how their traditions and communal identity has been affected by the changes that the world has imposed or allowed throughout the course of time.

Despite my enthusiasm, it is important to note that this approach is not broadly adopted within academic circles and has received its fair share of criticism. However, once you engage this perspective, the recounting of the survival of Sámi culture and heritage despite the imposition of borders, colonization, and western religion becomes something rather spectacular. The mere action of being able to present this lecture in this way is an important part of our understanding of the culture and people in question, and we stand to lose this if we failed to consider the important relationship at play between the form and function of the work Prof. Storfjell is doing.

Josh Erb is a senior in Global Studies. He is currently a Foreign Languages and Area Studies Fellow for Arabic through the European Union Center. He is interested in many topics related to cultural heritage, policy, and identity. He is currently completing a senior thesis on the topic of North African immigration to Europe, and plans to continue studying this topic next year while attending graduate school at the University of Chicago.


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