Feikkipuku, Ethnic slurs, 'Hysteria' and Ignorance

A reminder of what arts education has to do with equality

I would like to compare two stories that I came accross via social media this week. The first is the latest in a long line of ' feikkipuku ' controversies that played out on instagram and twitter when SDP MP and Chairperson of the City Council of Mikkeli, Satu Taavitsainen, posted a photo of herself dressed in fake Sámi traditional dress. The second was the response to aggressive criticism of the name of U.S. based artist Gabrielle Smith's recording project: Eskimeaux .

Taavitsainen's photo was, in many respects, quite beautiful.

Source: Taavitsainen's instagram account

The photo plays on romantic imagery of femininity, Finnish nature, Lapland springtime (sunshine and snow!) and Indigeneity. However, given that neither Taavitsainen nor the dress worn are Sámi, the photo has been criticised as cultural exploitation. Even more troubling, was the ensuing twitter discussion, in which Taavitsainen defended her post (which has since been made private), blaming the Sámi for being overly sensitive and aggressive, and characterizing the entire situation as politicized Sámi-hysteria.

In contrast, Indigenous Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq publicly criticized Gabrielle Smith for her recording project's name: Eskimeaux. Tagaq accused Smith of stereotyping Inuit culture and playing upon the derogatory ethnic slur 'Eskimo' , warning her on twitter: 'If you want to use the word Eskimo you had better be an Eskimo or I'll eat you for lunch' and 'I'm tired of being reduced, diminished, dismissed. Our matriarchs are better than this'.

Source: Tagaq's twitter account

Smith responded that her birth father is Tlingit (North American Indigenous group) and that in researching her heritage she had come accross the term Eskimo time and time again, so adopted it as part of her artist identity. However, having been made aware of the offense the term causes, the band decided to change their name to Ó. Tagaq was pleasantly surprised at Smith's response, and stated that she was looking forward to a future friendship.

So what can we learn from these two stories?

For me, as someone who is not Finnish, nor Canadian, nor Indigenous, what I take from these stories are their implications for arts education and my work as a teacher and scholar. This is not only about what I should teach my students, but also about what I need to learn myself.

The duodji techniques and skills employed in crafting gákti communicate some of the most distinct symbols of Sámi culture, including the homeland region, village, and family of the wearer, in addition to numerous subtle cultural codes that are not always easily identified or understood by non-Sámi. In this sense, it is not simply a dress representing one's geographical or cultural affiliation, but part of one's social and personal identity. As such, wearing gákti is a means to locate oneself within Sámi society. A non-Sámi person wearing fake gákti, especially a person in a position of relative power and influence, communicates (at best) that Sámi culture is a trivial plaything, reducing an important and powerful cultural symbol to a pretty costume.

In renaming her band, Smith seemed to learn this lesson (how not to be culturally offensive or exploitative by misappropriating a key symbol of Indigenous identity) in a single twitter exchange. Why then, is it taking mainstream Finnish society so long? Why, instead of learning this simple lesson, do we petulantly accuse the Sámi of whinging about the same thing, again, and again, and again?

This discussion extends far beyond pointing the finger at Taavitsainen or Smith as being ignorant or inflamatory, to much broader structures and processes that support what Tuck and Yang (2012) term internal colonization. Internal colonization relates not so much to the conquest of land (as we so often associate with colonization), but the means of stratifying society, distinguishing Indigenous from the mainstream, with the latter unquestioningly positioned as normal, civilized or better. Through particular modes of social control, such as education (yes, even arts education), we teach, and are taught that Indigenous cultures, knowledge, and worldviews are simply not as valid as those of the majority.

This is not hyper-sensitivity or political hysteria. Just looking within Finnish arts education alone (a small field, but one in which both quality and equality have been foregrounded since the 1960s), Indigenous knowledge and pedagogies are almost, if not entirely, absent from our teacher education programmes. As one teacher I spoke with explained:

The qualifications we earn in order to teach have nothing to do with Sámi arts, culture, languages, or pedagogical approaches. In order to be included as equals in the mainstream education system we must silence our ancestral knowledge and forget what we know.

This means that Indigenous teachers must go through complex processes of un-learning and re-learning in order to meet the needs of students in their own communities, and struggle to legitimize their own cultures within the mainstream education system. Additionally, non-Sámi teachers are generally at a loss as to how to approach Sámi arts in the classroom at all, let alone in a culturally respectful way. As a non-Sámi secondary school music teacher in the far North of the country told me a few years ago:

the Sámi people don’t want somebody foreign coming to teach them how to practice their own culture... I understood from the beginning that I cannot be teaching Sámi music.

If Sámi arts are included as part of teaching and learning, they are often positioned as an unnecessary bonus for students, a fun day of intercultural exposure rather than learning of any particular consequence or benefit.

It is against this backdrop of legitimation-crises and erasure that we allow depictions of the Sámi as drunk, uneducated, happy imbeciles (see Hymyhuulet on YLE Areena) to become the benchmark for us to judge our own inclusive, multicultural attitudes. In comparison to Hymyhuulet, wearing a beautiful though inauthentic dress seems like no big deal. But our daily choices as to whether we reinforce or actively counter internal colonialisim in advertising, tourism, fashion, art, music, film, politics, education, research and elsewhere have significant ramifications for wellbeing and equality.

Of course, the ideal world is one in which we are all so well educated and communicate with one another so effectively that we never make mistakes that inflict harm upon others. In this ideal world we would not need to essentialize identities of us and them , Finnish and Sámi , or insider and outsider through acts nor accusations of cultural misappropriation. Of course the situation is complex and fraught with disagreement, emotion, power, and politics. Yet it is also clear that students and teachers are keen to learn more about, and learn from, the Sámi. One example of such cooperative and reflective work was only a few weeks ago, in a workshop led by joik artist, musician, and Artsequal researcher Hildá Länsman and children from CitySamit at the International School of Music Finland ).

Ms. Hildá Länsman teaching students a little about gákti at the International School of Music Finland. Photo by Kalle Kallio.

However, I think the main message from these two stories is how we might react when we do mess things up. I am by no means exempt from these lessons, I mess things up. Regularly. I have been corrected many times during my Artsequal research, and have had plenty of *facepalm* moments at coming to realize my ignorance on my own. But I, and I suspect many others, have something to learn from Gabrielle Smith. On being confronted by Tagaq, she explained, but did not defend, her choice of band name Eskimeaux . She learnt something, and corrected herself accordingly.

It does not seem to be too high a demand for us to admit our mistakes, apologize in earnest, and resolve to do better.

This kind of confrontation is not personal, it is educative. It is not about activism (though this too, has its place in this discussion) but awareness. It is not about the aggression in confrontation, but the microaggressions experienced through the dismissal or erasure of Indigenous identity, history, and culture in every day life. Tagaq articulates this clearly in explaining her approach to criticizing Smith's band name:

I applied the same tactic that I have used a multitude of times with offending appropriators or groups... which was one of aggressive public scrutiny. This tactic is taken because often when I privately contact these groups they dismiss me completely until there is a public outcry.

It is both unethical and self-defeatist to continue arguing for the right to be ignorant. Undermining the efforts of the Sámi to educate the public about their histories and cultural traditions works against the ideals of democracy and equality so clearly articulated in Finnish educational and cultural policy.

Rather than dismissing those who repeatedly take the time to correct and inform the mistakes we make, I think it is high time we take responsibility for our own learning. Don't you?

Further reading

Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1 (1), 1-40.




University of the Arts Helsinki
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