Training Future Elders
Snowchange Youth Work in the Eurasian North
WORDS TERO MUSTONEN
Snowchange Co-op is a non-profit organization in Finland devoted to the advancement of Northern peoples, traditions and nature. In the context of rapid climate and environmental change as well as imminent collapse of endemic and Indigenous knowledge systems, a key question for the 21st century is how will we pass the place-specific and tradition-bound knowledge on land to the next generations.
This article reviews the practices of local Finnish Karelian villages in Eastern Finland, Indigenous Skolt Sámi communities in the European North and Lower Kolyma region, Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Russia in Siberia advocating land-based solutions to “train future Elders” of the local and Indigenous communities. At the core of this approach are the notions: all education needs to happen on land, and that children must be fully immersed in the activities themselves and acquire and understand culturally relevant key knowledge.
Finnish Practices from Selkie
It is hard to say from where the Finns came. The language has relations with the Sámi, Karelian and Estonian languages, to name a few examples, but the origin of our peoples has been lost to the myth-times. Finland is a paradox of existence in many ways – a society of the largest documented oral history and traditional song catalogue in the world with over two million verses at the Finnish Literature Society, and yet we remain a people without a voice – in silence, silenced. Today our villages have the status of “local communities” – the Sámi are the Indigenous societies of Finland. However our region and villages are also rich in tradition and practice.
The village of Selkie is located in the boreal zone of North Karelia, Finland, at the North-Eastern corner of Europe. The layered landscape contains historically Sámi, Karelian and contemporary Finnish place names. Many of the Karelian families left in the 1640s as the Swedish Crown expanded its influence in the region, fostering the advance of Lutheran-believing Finns east from Savo. Selkie is one of the villages in Karelia, from where “Kalevala”-style poetry was collected in the 1800s.
2008 represents a “Year Zero” in the efforts to revitalize Finnish-Karelian traditions in Selkie; Snowchange and local organizations re-established traditional fisheries, such as winter seining, in Selkie. The resurgence was partly driven by the many keepers of local traditional culture, dialect and knowledge who felt it was time to share these experiences with the next generation. Simultaneously, concerns for the preservation of the local school in the village fostered in the idea of focusing on re-birth of traditional activities.
The Selkie school is a small rural school next to a conserved old-growth forest area in central Selkie. It has approximately 30 students from age 7 to 12 years old. Between 2008 and 2014 the village of Selkie installed a program at the school to train youth in traditional activities in manners and ways that are meaningful and practical to the children themselves.
The curriculum involves a combination of traditional studies and research in classroom and the practical application of traditional activities. For example, we have brought back traditional Kalevala style songs documented and lost in our village in the late 1800s. The archival materials were re-composed and performed with the kantele–instruments purchased using funds from the project. Snow and ice knowledge as well as traditional weather prediction signs have been a part of the learning experience too.
In fisheries we started to seine again so that children are pulling the nets. They also created on-line videos regarding fisheries, participated in the hunting activities, painted traditional fish calendars and learned about our place names directly from the oral histories of the old people. Place name stories, both from books and from surviving people, were painted on maps. Children have gone to the blacksmith to test their skills at iron works. This was very meaningful as it was very practical and of great interest especially to the boys involved. In the Finnish-Karelian tradition the blacksmith is on par with the spiritual person, noita, because he mastered the secrets of the iron.
The village of Selkie and Snowchange Cooperative have installed a wide range of activities to train the children and youth in traditional nature-based activities. They range from the largest watershed restoration project in Eastern Finland, located on river Jukajoki to the establishment of private kindergarten and the invitation of the Skolt Sámi indigenous peoples into a school exchange. Additionally the school has an exchange of traditional activities with sister schools in Unalakleet, Alaska, USA with the Inupiaq people as well as the Udmurtians in Ural mountains, Russia.
Many of the land-based efforts, in addition to training young people about the culture and region, are aimed at maintaining a presence and continuation of the wilderness economies, especially in fisheries. This is also an important source of defence against land-use interests from outside, such as the imminent threat of mining for uranium and other minerals.
Clean watersheds and restoration of damaged lakes and rivers in the region are crucial to the reclaiming of tradition and practice in North Karelia. Mining, with its polluting tailings and run offs in addition to the tremendous land bases it requires are not compatible with the sustainable future of the region – home of the unique land-locked ringed seal of Saimaa and the lake-bound Atlantic salmon. Both the diversity of nature and peoples need to be maintained at this time of change, and especially uranium and open-pit mining practices are activities which the lands and waters of North Karelia cannot sustain.
In conclusion, by restoring the traditional activities and memories of the old people in Selkie and North Karelia, we are healing ourselves. By remembering the different ways of interacting with the waters and lands of our home, we are supporting the full richness of our nature and people. Finns suffer from the quickest cultural change in Europe and therefore the loss of tradition, identities and traditional practices involves everybody. By demonstrating in positive, practical ways the connections and power inherent in these things we are addressing fundamental questions of life, culture and tradition in Finland.
Skolt Sámi Traditions in a Time of Unprecedented Change
The Eastern Sámi peoples constitute a large number of tribal Indigenous societies living in the North of Europe. They belong to the wider Sámi cultural region, Sápmi – the Sámi home region in English. The Sámi had their own ways of organizing time and space, through the so-called siida tribal governance, prior to the establishment of European nation-states in the region. For the Eastern Sámi peoples, such as the Skolts, Akkala, Ter and Kildin peoples, at least four endemic seasonal migration types, a crucial land use “motor” of the siida system, existed before the 1900s.
While traditional economies revolved around small-scale reindeer herding, a distinct feature of the Eastern Sámi societies has been and continues to be traditional fisheries, especially harvests of Atlantic salmon (salmo salar). The traditional governance of the Sámi in this region was built on the idea that each family, clan and tribal group used their own designated watersheds as a part of this fishing cycle. In contemporary times, there have been significant changes to the lives of the Eastern Sámi peoples. Many of their salmon rivers have been dammed for hydroelectricity production. However, two important salmon streams, Näätämö in Finnish-Norwegian borderlands and Ponoi in the Eastern and Central parts of the Kola Peninsula, Russia, remain healthy and productive.
With the help from United Nations University’s Traditional Knowledge Initiative, Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment, Nordic Council of Ministers and other partners, the Eastern Sámi communities have began documenting changes to salmon employing traditional knowledge, and installing collaborative management measures to try to preserve the salmon in the context of rapid environmental changes.
One such project brings Sámi elders and youth together, by the Skolt Sámi and other local organizations and peoples, to develop co-management solutions to the Näätämö river on the Finnish-Norwegian borderlands. The work began in 2009 and continues without breaks. Methods include documentation of land use, traditional knowledge, analysis of past and present land use, place names, oral histories and optic histories. The fishermen document sites and observations of change, report them to the researchers working with them and joint measures are discussed and implemented to improve a specific issue in the watershed; many of these methods have been developed by the Australian Indigenous-led Traditional Knowledge Revitalization Project, led by Victor Steffensen. Mr. Steffensen took part in the 2008 Snowchange Conference in New Zealand, learned of the Sámi work and visited twice to train local people in Näätämö area in restoring and documenting Indigenous knowledge, mostly using video.
A central concept in the work is the engagement with the Elders who possess traditional knowledge of the river and the Skolt culture. One such person was the late Filip Jefremoff, who passed away in 2013. He mastered the visual side of documenting changes and also conveyed the traditional land use methods and places to the collaborative management team.
The ancestors of the modern-day Skolts arrived to the watershed of Näätämö in 1944 with the closure of traditional territories, which had been located in Russian-Finnish borderlands until that time. The traditional owners of the river also belonged to the Skolt tribes – they were the Näätämö siida people. However, due to colonization and changes in the region, most of these former people assimilated to the Norwegian and Finnish societies in early 1900s. People living now on the watershed are the arrivals from the Suonjel Skolt Sámi siida from Russia in 1944.
Role and knowledge of the women is instrumental in the salmon work. Project leaders from the Sámi side, such as Pauliina Feodoroff, are leading the efforts to include the specific ways and beings that women have with their river into the work. Part of the collaborative management efforts are gender-specific, and therefore only women have documented women’s knowledge, observations and language – making sure that the traditional laws are respected and honoured.
The collaborative management issues have progressed well. Developments have taken place on the watershed, as well as in the cultural, legal and international domains regarding Eastern Sámi and the salmon. These achievements coincide with extreme weather fluctuations along the catchment area of Näätämö, where extreme heat waves and low-running rivers follow heavy rains and record high water levels. Such changes in the very landscape and aquatic systems of the Skolt Sámi have led them to engage with the following new initiatives to address the situation.
A. Contemporary Land Use Documentation
As a part of the project the very first Sámi land use and occupancy maps as well as traditional knowledge views on salmon spawning territories in the catchment areas have been created. Restoration of Skolt Sámi language goes hand in hand with the land use, so the Skolt Sámi have employed a wide range of methods for the work to restore traditional knowledge in times of severe climatic and ecosystem change. Most importantly they have also implemented a system of language nests in Sevettijärvi and Ivalo communities, to make sure the endangered Skolt language will be preserved and rejuvenated for future generations.
B. Applying Sámi Archives to the UNESCO Memory
of the World Process
The Eastern Sámi, especially the Skolts, are the only Sámi who have saved specific written documents, sometimes defined as agreements and arrangements with the European powers who arrived into their world. The oldest surviving document is from 1517, while more from 1600s and 1700s exist in the Sámi Archives. The Sámi have applied for the Sámi Archives to be included into the UNESCO Memory of the World Process as a way to promote their long lasting rights and traditions in their home areas. A film “Skolt Sámi Archive” features this process.
This film and its longer version was created in partnership with the Sámi Educational Institute in Inari to make sure younger generations of the Skolts and others are involved in the documentation of change and oral history.
C. Identifying Sites for Restoration in the Watershed
Past damages caused by state and outside actors have wrecked salmon spawning streams in the Näätämö catchment area, such as the river Vainosjoki. Now Vainosjoki has been identified as a future site of restoration activities to increase salmon spawning productivity in the river and adjacent streams.
Kolyma Free, Kolyma on the Move
The Lower Kolyma region in Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Siberia, Russia is a home to the Chukchi, Yukaghir, even and other Indigenous peoples. Snowchange Co-op has been working there for a decade in a direct partnership with the nomadic communities. Kolyma is one of the great Siberian rivers and is a lifeline for the local societies for food, culture and nourishment.
The region has gained attention for the fact that the permafrost, which contains millions of tons of greenhouse gasses, is melting. The nomads of Kolyma are aware of these changes and have decided to survive in the middle of these events by restoring core elements of their land-based cultures.
One of the engines for this work is the concept of nomadic schooling. The community of Nutendli with the help of Snowchange, has established and maintained the school since 2005. While the yearly situation changes depending on the numbers of children at the school, the method of teaching Russian curriculum together with the Chukchi culture is a benchmark method of preserving traditional knowledge and culture.
Since 2008 Snowchange has worked with the Barefoot College in India and other local partners, including the Northern Forum Academy to advance the nomadic school initiative further. In 2012 the first solar electrification activities took place at the fish bases and reindeer brigades of Turvaurgin community, a neighbouring mobile society next to Nutendli. Pilot panels work well, with over 60% cuts in the need for diesel fuels at fishery bases. Moreover, the idea is that new nomadic schools would be installed in many of the seven reindeer brigades of Turvaurgin relying solely on solar power for those months of the year when the sun is visible in the region.
This article has highlighted three regions of Snowchange work in the frame of educating the youth and children in traditions in the context of rapid changes in the north. Each case has its own ways of speed, being and progressions, but what unites all of these sites is the idea that there is a need to train future elders today, so that in 2100 the core of the Northern societies, and their own knowledges live, while adapting to new conditions but healing from the damages of the 20th Century.
Essentially our times, our places are ours after centuries of imposed activities, they are unbound, released – in other words, they are, once again, free.