Crossing North 11: It's Illegal to Be Native

Dr. Tim Frandy in Finland.


What happens when sustaining a Nordic way of life disrupts sustaining a Sámi way of life? Assistant Professor Tim Frandy discusses the history and future of Sámi fishing rights on the Deatnu River, as well as a few hard truths about the ethnocentrism of Western environmental management practices.

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Tim Frandy: It’s enormously condescending. It’s walking with blinders on. It’s, you know, refusing to see things outside of your own cultural framework. I mean, we have massive problems with food systems in this country. Our food systems are absurd. Like, there are edible plants all throughout your yard. We do not eat those. There’s edible things everywhere in the world and we don’t eat those. Instead, we create massive systems of transport and slaughter and industrial farms in order to feed people because we don’t eat the stuff that’s on the ground. And we don’t take care of the environment in ways that support more food growing on the ground. It doesn’t make any sense to me. And we could be doing so much better and people have done so much better for— the vast majority of human existence. Why would we— I don’t know why we would give more credence to that system than it deserves. It’s very absurd, really. And to think that everyone needs to adapt to that. It’s just, there’s so many problems, it’s, you know, the Indigenous people live in the past stereotype and that modernization means living like a white person? —whereas cultures everywhere in 2019, the tens of thousands of cultures in the world, are all equally modern. It’s just a ridiculous bit of assimilationist ethnocentric nonsense.

Colin Gioia Connors: Assistant Professor Tim Frandy is an expert on Sámi culture. His research focuses on cultural approaches to environmental management and human health, and especially on Indigenous approaches to sustainability. He has worked extensively with Indigenous communities in the Nordic region and the United States to strengthen the cultural autonomy of Indigenous-led health initiatives. Tim visited the University of Washington last May, and we discussed his research on the history and future of Sámi fishing rights on the Deatnu River along the Norwegian-Finnish border, and what happens when sustaining a Nordic way of life disrupts sustaining a Sámi way of life.

[*Intro music starts*]

Welcome to Crossing North: a podcast where we learn from Nordic and Baltic artists, scholars, and community members to better understand our world, our communities, and ourselves. Coming to you from the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, I’m your host Colin Gioia Connors.

[*Intro music ends*]

Tim: [*Speaking Sámi*] Bures. Mu sámenamma lea Duomasa Tim, ja mun lean dávvi-Wisconsinas eret, Anishinaabe eatnamis, muhto mu bearaš lei Geama- ja Gárasavvon-Sámis eret. Ja mun lean professorin Western Kentucky Universiteahttas Folklore-Instituhttas.

My name’s Tim Frandy. I am a professor of folklore studies at Western Kentucky University and I am originally from northern Wisconsin from Anishinaabe lands, but my family has Sámi roots in the regions of Kemi Sápmi and Gárasavvon Sápmi, mostly in Finland.

Colin: One of Tim’s methods as a folklorist who works with Indigenous communities is to assist them in their efforts to repatriate cultural knowledge lost to colonial and assimilationist pressures. For his book, Inari Sámi Folklore: Stories from Aanaar, Tim translated a collection of Sámi folktales collected by folklorists in the late 19th century. His book explores both what we can and cannot learn from these texts. One chapter of the book focuses on hunting stories. These stories have helped contemporary Sámi scholars correct mainstream colonial narratives about Sámi peoples’ relationships to wild reindeer and the environment.

Tim: The wild reindeer population actually collapsed in the late seventeen hundreds or early eighteen hundreds. So there was this mainstay of their economy, you know, several months of the year were devoted to wild reindeer hunting, and it just collapsed out of nowhere. And the community didn’t really know why. And, you know, anthropologists and other, you know, outsiders said, “Well, clearly this is overhunting that caused this.” And I was always a little suspicious about it. I’m always suspect about claims of overhunting especially when it’s with Indigenous people. And, it is really only recently when some Sámi scholars started pushing back on that. And they pointed out, “Well, you know, every time you have settlers that, kind of, come into the area, animal populations collapse. It happened with salmon on Norwegian salmon rivers up to the Deatnu, it happened with beaver when the fur trade became very big—like, Finnish people moved up to Sámi rivers with beaver on them and hunted the beaver to extinction—and here it’s happening with wild reindeer because here you’ve got Finnish people who are coming in from the south, burning down the forest, putting farms, and all of a sudden the wild reindeer disappear. [*sarcastically*] But clearly it had to be the hunting, right?” [*laughs*] But even though the hunting has been fine for hundreds and hundreds of years! [*again, sarcastically*] But yeah, it must have been overhunting. So there is the same sustainability measure, I think. You’ve got a technique for sustainable hunting with thriving reindeer populations, then settlers come up, put up farms, and immediately it collapses. And there is this racist narrative sort of over the top that clearly this is the Sámi people’s fault for overhunting because these are cultures that are doomed to die because hunting and gathering and reindeer herding are ultimately inferior and will ultimately be displaced by farming, by industry, by this so-called modern economic framework. So I think it is interesting that this whole story follows the same pattern, that you’ve got Indigenous sustainabilities that are working and yet Indigenous people are blamed for their own destruction without any justification. And this is accepted for well over a hundred years until it was finally called into question.

Colin: The work of revising racist colonial narratives about Indigenous people and their ability to sustainably manage their natural resources is not unique to Sámi people. Tim’s research on Sámi hunting and fishing practices were inspired by his relationship to his Anishinaabe neighbors in northern Wisconsin, where Tim grew up. In both Norway and Wisconsin, governmental policies have restricted Indigenous net and spearfishing in favor of Western-style angling. This legal favoritism towards angling brought in tourists and recreational fishermen, whose activities began to supplant the active traditions of local subsistence fishermen. Public concerns over fish populations, however, were mainly directed against Native people. Tim’s Anishinaabe neighbors were blamed for overfishing because they fished with spears, despite data that spearfishing only accounted for 3% of all fish caught. The public controversy was known as the Wisconsin Walleye War, which started in the 1970s and still continues to this day.

Tim: So in the 1970s the Tribble brothers, who are tribal members from the LCO [Lac Courte Oreilles] Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians or Anishinaabe people, they were students at the time, and they purposefully went out and got themselves arrested for illegal fishing just off the reservation line. They were fishing in one lake and there was this imaginary line that crossed through the lake that one side was the reservation, one side was off the reservation, and so they started spearing just off the reservation. Sure enough a game warden came around and knocked on their door and gave them a ticket, and they knew from their law professors—they were students at the timethat they had treaty rights that guaranteed them to be able to fish in traditional ways in the ceded territories of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. So they were ticketed and the case went to court, and it went through the courts for many, many years until the early 1980s, 1983 if I recall, when eventually the court ruled that they had the rights, guaranteed in treaties, which are internationally binding documents between sovereign nations, and so their case was dismissed. But it opened up the ability for all these Anishinaabe bands to spear off the reservation in traditional ways. And it exploded in northern Wisconsin and I was a child at the time in the area, and a number of white protestors started showing up on boat landings, throwing around racial slurs, a lot of hate speech, which I certainly won’t repeat—it’s all available online—and it all, sort of, was hidden under the guise of conservation. One of the big leaders of this organisation called Stop Treaty Abuse was well known to be extraordinarily racist, but he insisted that it was about conservation. It was a very tense atmosphere to grow up in as a child. The communities, the white communities, were torn apart, and people would choose sides, and I had uncles that worked for the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] at the time and were just trying to maintain peace on the boat landings. And lots of these issues still happen today. Even just this year, there were [Anishinaabe] spear fishermen on the lakes who were shot at. And this happens regularly and it’s a terrible, terrible situation that continues to be a problem—the imminent threat of colonial violence against Native people for practicing their own rights and practicing their own culture.

Colin: If the Tribble brothers’ law professor told them that they had these treaty rights, why were they ticketed then when they went and exercised them?

Tim: [*laughs*] Because we live in a colonial society and a colonial nation, and it’s illegal to be Native and to practice Native cultures, you know, by and large, right? Not saying that is right, it’s a terrible wrong, but this is the reality that Native people live with everyday. Free and open practicing of a Native American religion was illegal in this country until 1978, which is absurd when you think about the fact that this country was supposedly founded on the freedom of religion. But that is the reality of colonial societies—It’s such a privileging of certain cultural lenses, certain cultural priorities, certain cultural values, certain cultural approaches to knowledge and science that it is difficult to be an Indigenous person in these societies.

You know, conservation laws have a very distinctive history that is rooted more in cultural practice than conservation science, right? How we approach conservation of environments is a cultural game and it’s rooted in values that go back hundreds and hundreds of years. So, in much of western Europe, thinking like England, France, Germany, some of the earliest forests and earliest conservation measures that were ever practiced were restricting the forests to the wealthy, right? This is Robin Hood. Robin Hood was a poacher in the king’s forest. The king would not allow people to hunt in his forest, and so Robin Hood’s activities were illegal and driven underground. This is a folk hero that goes back almost a thousand years in Europe. This was practiced widely. You know, the game was set aside for the privilege of the king and the aristocracy, and if you’re poor you don’t have access to this because they were concerned that poor people were taking all the resources. And this is still a living concern today. The poor bear disproportionate responsibility—unjustifiably so—for the protection of game resources. The people who need the meat are blamed for the depletion of the environment, whereas you can very easily look at other sources. You can look at, in terms of fish, you can look at shoreline development, which destroys critical habitat, you can look at boat traffic, which destroys weed bed structures and dumps pollutants into the lake, you can look at coal, which contaminates the waters with mercury from hundreds and hundreds of miles away, you can look at, in the case of the Deatnu River, how people walk in the river and disturb spawning beds, you can look at people who pull out brush from the lake so it looks nice and neat, but they are destroying critical habitat for minnow growth and shelter—there’s many alternative strategies in Indigeous cultures that people use to protect the environment that were not integrated into the Western systems. So, whereas the West, first they try to restrict by privilege, then later they try to restrict by size or gender of species, so if you’re hunting deer, bucks only, because it’s a manly competition. But that’s not a universal value. And it’s guised as something that is healthy for the reproduction of the species. But it’s also somewhat problematic, because it is very much rooted in this [*deep voice*] “hunting is a combat between man and animal” sort of mentality, which just doesn’t exist in a lot of cultures around the world.

When I was working with a Sámi journalist named Niilo Vuomajoki, he told this beautiful story about how, when he was a teenager, there was sort of this restricted area. He said his father, his elders, would never let him go into this part of the river. And he never understood why, and he said he was a teenager and thought, “I can do what I want,” because—teenager. And one time he went back into this restricted area. He walked through the forest and he knew that the river was back there, and he was shocked at what he saw. He said there was a still water, and within the still water there was a, like, flowering, sandy shoreline, and in the water were hundreds and hundreds of salmon spawning. It was critical habitat. It was essential for the survival of the salmon. They needed that area to be off-limits to people. They needed it to rest and be in peace so they could reproduce naturally in this pristine, healthy space. He said— I remember what he said. He said, “It was like a sacred area,” that’s marked, that’s sacred, that’s restricted, that’s not for us. And he understood why he wasn’t supposed to go back there. And now, today, that sense of restricted place is very infrequently used in Western-style game management. And why not? Why don’t we do that? Why don’t we have more areas that are off limits? Why don’t we use Indigenous systems of resting waters for five years to let them recover before we open them up for increased harvest, for more harvesting again. These techniques—they’re just not used very often. And I think they can be very effective. And I think they can be used in ways that strengthen Indigenous cultures, Indigenous values, and sort of create more multicultural and diverse lenses and approaches to the sciences.

Colin: What is the Sámi method of fishing on the Deatnu?

Tim: Well there are many methods that were used traditionally on the Deatnu River. The Sámi method was usually to fish with nets, and most outsiders think that fishing with nets is destructive because it takes too many fish. But there are different ways you can fish with nets. You can use drift nets or gill nets which are set up to be stationary—the fish just pass through. You can fish with a seine, which is a sort of net that you pull and you create a circle and you catch fish in this bag-like structure. Or you can fish with the buođđu—the fish dam technique—which is very common on the Deatnu River. And that technique, you make a sort of brush barricade which cause the fish to look for a hole to look get through the brush, and then you sort of channel them and push them into a, like, purse net that they will all get trapped in the end. And that is one of the most common ways of fishing on the Deatnu River. And that is one of the techniques that is most under attack, today.

Colin: And why is it under attack?

Tim: Because tourists think that’s getting all the fish. Traditionally, these netting techniques were used on all the rivers in Sápmi and Sámi people kept their rivers healthy for thousands of years. And you don’t see environmental depletion and salmon stock depletion until waves of tourists start coming up from Great Britain. “Gentlemen anglers” they were called. And first they exhausted all the rivers in Scotland, and then they jumped to Norway in the early 1800s, and river by river they would go up and they would catch thousands and thousands of pounds of salmon, take them out of the rivers. They would angle, they would walk in the rivers, they would walk on the shores, and they kept pushing further and further north and the salmon on each of those rivers started declining. And, you know, maybe it is a net effect, maybe it is a cumulative effect, but wherever outsiders are coming to fish, it causes this destruction. And that has been a pattern now for two hundred years that people just don’t want to admit.

Colin: So do Sámi people have treaty rights to fishing?

Tim: No.

Colin: Why not?

Tim: [*laughs*] Because there are no treaties.

Sámi people were recognized as a sovereign nation at various points in history. A lot of people like to think that Indigenous rights—that things are always improving, right? It’s the progress myth we tell ourselves. “Back in the past people were not as sophisticated. They had less understanding of the world than we do now.” But that’s not always the case— Sometimes things get worse. Sometimes things get worse. And throughout the Middle Ages, Sámi people were basically recognized as sovereign people. And it’s really only when the Enlightenment comes in, into the Nordic states, where Sámi people are not treated as sovereign nations. They’re seen as lesser subjects than Swedes, lesser than Norwegians. And then eventually this leads through from, I suppose, the 1700s through the early 20th century into policies of forced assimilation. So because of this history Sámi people don’t have rights in the same way that Native people have rights because there has been this disrecognition. The state won't even acknowledge now, the state struggles to acknowledge, that they ever acknowledged Sámi people as sovereign or Indigenous people. In Sweden the state lawyers were arguing that Sámi people aren’t Indigenous people, on behalf of the state. This is our contemporary times and we act like there’s progress. Well in some ways things were better 500 years ago in terms of Sámi rights. And I think it’s dangerous to tell ourselves otherwise. 

Colin: So when did things really start to change with fishing rights?

Tim: There’s a long history of regulating the Deatnu River. And I think it starts—local control always used to reign supreme until you start to have outsiders come in, right? And when the British gentlemen anglers started showing up at these rivers, they started complaining that all the people fishing with nets are taking all the fish. That’s unsporting, you know, because you have to compete with the fish, for some reason. I don’t compete with my potatoes when I dig them up from my garden, I don’t compete with my blueberries when I pick them from the forest, but fish are apparently different. And so they decided that it was very ignoble and lowly to harvest with nets. So they started putting pressure, which was adapted by ethnic Norwegians—that this is not good for the environment to all people to take fish in this way. And so as the 1800s progress, towards the end of the 1800s there was increased pressure on Sámi people to act like Norwegians. The state confiscates, or steals, essentially, all Sámi lands. They become crown lands, under the control of the state. And the Norwegian state wants to homestead these lands out as happened in the U.S. And then they found out that Sámi people were homesteading their own lands back, and they didn’t want that to happen. So they said, “Well, to homestead you have to speak Norwegian as your first language at home.” So they did language tests on this. And so then Sámi people started speaking Norwegian at home so they could reacquire the lands that were already theirs to begin with. You know, in small percentages and in small proportion. And eventually, I forget what year it is, I think it’s 1907, the first hay laws are passed. And the hay laws started requiring Sámi people, or anyone, that if you’re going to fish for salmon on the Deatnu with a buođđu, with a fish dam, that you are required to be a farmer, that you are required to grow and cut 2000kg of hay per year. And the purpose of this was of course to force assimilation on Sámi people, right? Because the cultural logic, the colonial logic at play was once Sámi people start farming, they won’t want to be fishermen or reindeer herders anymore. And this was before there were roads in the area, [*laughs*] so this is very difficult to enforce. And nothing much happens and nobody really pays much mind to this until the roads start getting built into these communities and more and more tourists are starting to take advantage of these roads and come north from, like, Finland. Lots of Finnish tourists were coming up to fish because they were, in the mid 20th century, the 1950s, all the Finnish salmon rivers are being dammed up and the salmon stocks are collapsing. And so after the tourists come up, they start enforcing these laws because “Well, there are these laws on the books and you should be cutting hay to fish.” And so by the 1970s these laws are really starting to be enforced for the first time. These racist, assimilatory laws are coming to be enforced at the same time that multiculturalism and Indigenous pride is starting to flourish on an international stage. So today these things are considerably regimented because there is much fishing pressure on the Deatnu and has been since the 1990s. So you have to cut hay if you live on the Norwegian side if you want to have those fishing rights.

Colin: It sounds like a catch-22, that in order to fish you have to have a different livelihood. 

Tim: If you want to be Sámi, you have to be Norwegian first. Yes, it’s definitely a catch-22. [*laughs*]

Colin: Yeah, I think this brings up an idea that a lot of Norwegians and Finns like to pride themselves on, you know, the idea of fairness, or equality. Because the tourists say, “Hey, it’s not fair that this Sámi person can fish without paying for a fishing license, like me.” You know, “It’s not fair—according to the rules, they should be producing however many kilograms of hay.” So the discussion is always about fairness and equality, but they are only considering what is fair within the rules of the game. They’re not considering whether the rules themselves are fair, or, you know, whether those rules were written with any sense of justice in mind… What are the rules like in Finland?

Tim: On the Finnish side of the river, it’s quite a bit different. Many people do speak of Sámi having special netting rights on the Deatnu, which isn’t exactly accurate. In Finland there are special rights that are tied to land parcels, throughout the country. So if my family has lived on such-and-such-a-lake for three hundred years and we’ve always netted, those netting rights will be tied to the parcel of land that we own, and they can be transmitted from generation to generation. So, unlike the U.S. where in a state everyone has essentially similar right to fish, in Finland, if you’ve lived on a parcel of land for a long time—or if you have owned a parcel of land for a long time—you maybe will have these special netting rights that are attributed to this one lake. You know, other people can maybe come and angle, but maybe you can use nets. And so that’s the same system that happens up there on the Deatnu.

Colin: It sounds like the same system that happens occasionally in the U.S. when we talk about grandfathering rights into a place, that if people have been picking mushrooms for along time in a place, that when that place gets turned into a state park, that they might allow—this is an example from California where otherwise you can’t pick mushrooms in state parks.

Tim: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is, grandfathering those rights in. It’s a better system, I think I like many things about that system, but it also causes problems because if you have netting rights and you own a piece of land and perhaps you have three or four children, which one of them gets those rights? Which one gets the parcel of land? The person who owns the parcel of land gets those rights. So maybe you’ve got somebody who, the person who fishes needs to move out of the area, maybe they want to work at a university, maybe they need to move to the city for a job, and they lose their fishing rights because they don’t have opportunity in their hometown. And maybe the person who owns the land has a decent work in the area but has no time to fish. So that produces a number of problems, too. There’s not much flexibility in that system. And it is also very individualistic. Sámi people would always fish as a community. Surplus salmon were shared equally among the community. They were redistributed equally and everyone would work together to produce salmon, and that sort of undermines that when you’re saying that fishing rights are linked specifically to individuals.  

Colin: So, what is the legal situation like today?

Tim: Well, we could look at the recent court decision that was passed down, I think it was in March of this year, 2019, where fishing rights, after the very restrictive agreement of 2017, which reduced some people’s net fishing right by about 80% through various regulations imposed on Sámi fishermen, but in March or April of this year there was a court case that was won by a number of women and children, actually, who were fishing—illegally, right?—in the Deatnu tributaries, and it was ruled that because fishing is a cultural practice, and Norway has agreed, as a nation, to safeguard Sámi culture, that Sámi people actually had a right to fish in their own waters in their own traditional way. The ramifications of this are yet to be seen. I think lawyers and judges and Sámi people don’t know exactly what it means, yet. We know what it should mean—that Sámi people should be able to fish and practice their culture on Sámi lands in Sámi ways to preserve Sámi Indigenous futures. The state will appeal this, and they’re going to argue against it to say that fishing is environmental in nature and it’s not cultural. And who gets to control what it means to maintain an environment? Well, Norway is going to claim that right as their own, even though Sámi people have demonstrated great sophistication for thousands of years in managing their environment in sustainable ways. So Norway has been arguing for years and years that fishing is more environmental and not cultural, but, I mean, I think all environmental management is cultural. You can’t manage an environment without putting values in your choices and your decisions. What are you creating when you’re managing your environment? What are you looking to grow? What are you protecting? Even something like “invasive species” are a very colonial concept in the United States: invasive species are anything that enters the United States after 1492. And in Sápmi, the Norwegians and Swedes and Finns have said that Sámi are going to destroy their environment. They’ve said this for a hundred years or more. Like, “Oh, your reindeer are too many! You’re going to ruin your environment.” It’s fine. It’s still fine. The reindeer are doing great. You can look at their health, you can look at their layers of fat, they’re eating well. Things are okay. But there is this imminent sense of demise that’s carried over by this myth of human evolution, that people will no longer be able to live by hunting and gathering, or by reindeer herding—they’re going to have to modernize, the death of an Indigenous people is imminent. It’s a long standing bunch of nonsense that people have been telling themselves for hundreds of years in order to justify the colonial appropriation of Indigenous lands and rights. If you say that this society is doomed, then it gives you a logical reason to take the lands, to take over the policy management, and to do whatever you want. It’s not based in facts or reality. It’s based in the desire for control or power. It’s based in the ethnocentrism that you see in Nordic and all colonial societies, that there is a right way to manage land, and that is dictated by the colonial society itself.

I feel, like, compelled to talk a little bit about the shifts that happened in game management in the U.S. We sort of got derailed from that a little bit earlier. But one of the things that happened in the U.S. in terms of managing fishing and hunting licenses— It all emerged sort of in response to the massive environmental devastation that occurred with the near extinction of the buffalo and other game species. And with the generations of conservationists, like the hunter conservationists, you know, Aldo Leopold or Teddy Rosevelt or John Muir or like—it came out of this necessity, and it sort of also linked this, like, massive, grotesque overhunting with environmental depletion, or you know, population collapse of animals and fish. And that’s really stuck. And we sort of have this, like, strange mentality today that the people who are responsible for the fish are only the people who extract the fish. You know, it’s not the people who dump pollution into the water, it’s not the people who build, who destroy the shoreline or destroy their habitat—not even aware that they might be destroying it, you know, having a lawn right up to the aquatic system, which dumps lawn chemicals into the water. And so, you know, these license fees the people pay to fish and hunt, they are channeled into conservation efforts, which is great, right? But it’s also sort of this assumption that it’s people who extract animals from the species to eat them who are entirely responsible for environmental damage, and it’s not corporate entities, it’s not people who own property, it’s not people who change land, it’s not people who deforest the forest, it’s, you know, it’s just the hunters. It’s their fault. But I don’t think it’s a very accurate rendition of this very complicated way that ecosystems actually work.

Colin: Okay, so then you get this idea that if Native people are taking the fish resources without paying money for permits back into pay for conservation, then they are taking without replenishing.

Tim:  Yeah, I think that’s an idea, right. A lot of people— Oh, you see that with the Makah whale hunt, right? Like where, “Of course Makah people should have their own culture,” say the non-Native protesters to this event, “but they’re not supposed to actually kill anything. They’re supposed to be environmentalists,” and what it means to be an environmentalist is to be acting like a white environmentalist. It doesn’t involve regarding the whale as sacred, it doesn’t involve ritual hunt. It involves, you know, a very white rendition of farming and tree hugging. And that’s not what everybody does. And our conservation laws are bound into this racist legacy of what it means to conserve. And that sometimes means not hunting or not extracting, but, I mean, fundamentally humans need to extract to survive. We need food to eat, whether that is meat or plant. You know, we eat or be eaten. This the world. And we have to eat but we also have to let ourselves be eaten and we have to be part of this and be good team players with, you know, our older brothers and sisters, the plants, the animals, and so on.

Colin: So, what should environmentalists do if they want to be allies?

Tim: I think environmentalists and anyone working in the ecological sciences in general, the hard pill to swallow that most people might be hesitant to hear is to understand that all science is ethnoscience. And that you’ve learned science within a cultural framework, to approach problems in certain cultural ways, to ask questions that reflect certain cultural values, to generate information that helps address certain culturally based priorities. And I think it is a matter of listening and recognizing your own bias. You know, every other discipline aside from the sciences has recognized that cultural relativism matters. We do that in the humanities, we recognize that in the social sciences, but many scientists are sort of immune from seeing that criticism of themselves, and I think there needs to be an opening for that. To realize that cultural informs science. Absolutely. In all cases.

I think the other thing, big lesson to learn, is that the many models for contemporary collaboration are inadequate. I’ve seen it many times in the field of sustainability studies, where people call for Indigenous people to have a seat at the table. A seat at the table is good. But it doesn’t really address the disparities of power that are endemic in these relationships. You know, I can sit at a table and you can serve up, you can cut that meat however you want and you can serve me the tiniest little bit of meat—but I want to be able to cut that meat. You know, I want a real say. I want real power. And a seat at the table doesn’t guarantee that you have that power, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be listened to. And even things like Sámi parliaments are advisory bodies that don’t need to be taken seriously, that don’t have actual, real mandate to enact Sámi policies in Sámi ways using Sámi methods. And we need to have a gut check that you can’t equalize power without surrendering power. Point blank, that’s what it is. You’re never going to do that. You need Sámi people running Sámi affairs. Sámi people calling shots. Indigenous people calling shots. And until we get to that point, it’s just another move to white innocence, move to colonial innocence, where we’re never going to fix the problems, but boy, we’ll sure feel better about ourselves, right? And that’s no way to be, and that’s no way to fix really difficult problems in the world. 

Colin: Yeah, I like that metaphor because I’ve noticed that “decolonization” is becoming a popular concept, but often what is being discussed is a seat at the table, it’s not who is holding the knife. It’s, you know, diversifying the press photograph without actually changing who’s in charge, and that’s not decolonization. Decolonization is ending the federal practice of holding tribal lands in trust, which prevents tribes from independently managing their own lands as if they were children.

Tim: Yes.

Colin: So yeah, I feel like you explained it perfectly.

Tim: I do think there are, well, there are two things to consider, one of which is the “celebrate diversity” model for cultural work, and there’s risk in that. You know, it’s great, right? It sounds good, it’s a good sound bite, there’s nothing wrong with it. But celebrating diversity is about celebrating the colorful spectrum of human experience, it’s very surface level and I think you see it expressed in the fact that when people are interested in Sámi culture a lot of times the first thing they’re interested in are bright colored gákti, or clothing, or in joik song, which sounds very exotic to outsiders, and they want to see that cultural experience, right? But they don’t actually want to surrender real power over land rights or say your sciences are valid in the same way that all ethnosciences are valid. And I have concerns over the people who just want to celebrate because I think it’s a way, it’s one of these moves to innocence where you can act like you’re multicultural but you’re not actually surrendering any real space for alternative epistemological frameworks, for alternative worldviews, for alternative knowledge traditions to exist within something like a university, something like a government. So there is no real surrendering of power that actually takes place there. I think...what was the second point?

Colin: Well, celebrating teeters on exotifying and fetishizing people, not seeing them as equal people with their own agency, but just something for me to enjoy looking at. I’m celebrating you. But I’m not that interested in what you want to celebrate, or what you want to value.

Tim: Exactly! And especially for those of us who don’t like being on stage for other people. [*laughs*] I don’t want people looking at me and gawking at me in that sort of way. That’s very uncomfortable. I just want to be left alone so I can live in my own peace and have my lakes to fish in and have my woods to be in, and live my own simple life. I don’t want to be somebody else’s pet. That’s gross. [*laughs*] For me. I can’t do it. I don’t even like standing in front of a room!

But you do hear this critique sometimes in terms of Sámi culture. In the film, Gádde Gándat, [The Beach Boys] which I know you’ve seen, one of the final lines in the film is “Eventually they’ll allow us to have Sámi culture be nothing but gákti and joiking, and we’ll no longer get to practice our fishing and practice our real culture (because they want these colorful displays).” And I think that speaks powerfully to the nature of colonization, right? Colonization is mutable, it’s protean, it’s like this amoeba blob that will come over your culture and once you gain leverage against it, it will be attacking you from a different direction. So a hundred years ago, colonization meant: “We’re going to take away your land rights, we’re going to make sure you never speak your language, we’re going to stigmatize your clothing and you religion— No way.” And now, people say, “Well, okay, you can have your clothing, you can have your joik singing, which formerly was branded as diabolical, and maybe you can do you religion, too, because I think we’re okay with that finally after 1990 (even though it’s already internalized, still stigmatized within the community because of lateral violence) but we’re not going to let you have your land rights.” You know, it’s always shifting. And you can call it neo-colonialism, you can call it just plain old colonialism, but it’s a beast, and it’s all about maintaining social power, and it’s all about finding ways to pretend like you are giving concessions— “Look how much we’ve progressed because Sámi people can actually wear clothes that they want.” That’s not progress at all. It’s especially not progress if all you’re saying is, “You can wear your clothing, but you’re never going to have your fishing rights again.” I’d take fishing rights. Both are important. I’d still take fishing rights, but that’s just me. That’s the colonial beast, though. It’s always moving, though, to guarantee that the power remains in the hands of the powerful.

Colin: Yeah. Now, you and your colleagues have coined this term of “Indigenous sustainabilities.” Can we talk about that? 

Tim: Oh, we can talk about “Indigenous sustainabilites.” And I think— I like the term, I like the pluralistic nature of it, I like that we’re complicating the fact that sustainability is one monolithic enterprise. I think it also recognizes that different Indigenous societies have different strategies for achieving sustainable ends that balance different economic models, different environments that they are trying to maintain space in, different cultural patterns, taboos, restrictions, customary law, and you know, you can’t take Sámi sustainabilities and put them in New Mexico. You know, they’re not going to work, right? But there’s a diversity of these things and they need to be diverse, and I think this monolithic approach to sustainability studies, and “there’s one size fits all” is just another— It’s a mechanism of green colonialism. You can pretend like it’s a green policy, but when you are taking Sámi reindeer lands and you are turning them into green energy, how is that different than destroying a river? How is different from damming the river and ruining the salmon if you are destroying the reindeer grounds? How is it different from putting in a green arctic rail line so you can urbanize and resettle the Finnish side of Sápmi, going up to the Arctic Ocean, when that, again, will destroy the reindeer and it will bring more settlers up, it will bring more industry up, and will destroy, devastate Sámi ways of life. [*sarcastically*] But railroads are green. We hide behind environmentalism oftentimes—and by “we” I mean “colonial societies”—in order to justify enhanced colonization of Indigenous territories, and that is the disturbing part. Because the most dangerous settlers, the most dangerous colonizers are the one who have full conviction in their heart that what they’re doing is in the best interest of Indigenous people. It’s that good-intentioned, toothy-grinned smile that brought us boarding schools, that’s what brought us the dams and the mines that have destroyed Indigenous lands and poisoned the rivers—it’s all good intentions. It’s good intentions for economic development, which were used in racist ways in Africa to suppress Indigenous cultures, to modernize into a late-capitalist economy and make permanent economic dependencies, and sub-classes of people subservient to the Western elite of the global north. This is the aim of many of these projects that hide behind green tech, green technology, green environmental development. And not to say that— I’m a huge fan of green power, but it needs to be Indigenized, it needs to work for Sámi people. You can’t use Sámi lands to power Nordic states and still call them sustainable states. There is no sustainability if you are stealing somebody else’s resource to fuel your own state. That’s just—it’s a lie. So there are better ways to do it, right? And Sámi people have to be part of the decision making process, and the green technologies have to be used and incorporated in ways that are more sustainable for all the diverse peoples who inhabit the Nordic countries to achieve multicultural sustainabilities in the north.

Colin: Right, if you dam a river for hydro power, the water is renewable, but all of a sudden the reindeer are not renewable, and the fish are not renewable, and the way of life that depends on those is not renewable.

Tim: Exactly. And dams were thought to be renewable. I mean, they were thought to be sustainable tech. And they create all sorts of problems, as you know and as we’ve learned in the West, the American West, very quickly [*laughs*] after dams went up on so many rivers. You know, and we need energy, and energy is good in many ways, but we have to consider how we are doing that and who it’s impacting, how it’s affecting the fish and the ecosystem and the animals that depend on that shoreline habitat and the reindeer and so on.

Colin: Yeah, because our society needs energy, it also needs fish, but the fish have destroyed spawning grounds for fish and dramatically impacted their populations. So solution that have been taken for that is to have fish farms in order to produce fish. Are those sustainable?

Tim: Are fish farms sustainable? [*snickers*]

Well, in Sápmi, no. [*laughs*] There’s better and worse ways to do fish farming, but if you’re putting a fish fjarm— [*laughs*] [*ironically*] fish fjarm in a fjord— [*in a Norwegian accent*] fish fjarm in a fjord! [*laughs*] If you’re putting a fish farm in a fjord, it’s causing genetic contamination of wild stocks, it’s causing problems with invasive sea lice, that get into the wild population, it’s causing, like, sort of toxic sludge areas from all the fecal waste from the salmon. So it creates all sorts of problems. It helps the fish farmer, who can sell their fish at a cheap price, but is it really the best solution? You know, if we just had healthy fish, we could eat those healthy fish. Instead of ruining—depleting those fish and creating an artificial environment for a fish, so we can eat the fish. It seems like a lot of work to do, when we could just keep a cleaner environment and have food. On the ground. In the water. That we can get anytime. 

It reminds me, too, of a reindeer story in Sweden. You know, there are wolves, and wolves are predators of reindeer, and there’s always a problem, right? You know, how do you negotiate this with the state? The state maybe wants wolves in some areas (always Sámi areas) and Sámi people don't particularly like it when wolves eat the reindeer, and so a team of Swedish biologists decided, “Well, the best way we should address this problem is we should take all the reindeer and we should the up in pens. Just like you would with cattle.” [*incredulously*] Right? [*laughs*] So the solution to Sámi problems with wolves doesn’t involve, you know, selective hunting of problem wolves, or better systems of compensation for lost reindeer. It involves acting more Swedish. “Put everything in a fence and close them off. Then the wolves can’t get in.” Yeah, I don’t think that will work either. [*laughs*]

Colin: What happened when they tried that?

Tim: Oh, they didn’t try it, but I know that in Minnesota there are some reindeer farms, and you increase contamination and fecal contamination, so you are going to increase risks for, like, prion disease, or TB in deer herds. You see that on deer farms, which have become very popular in the upper Midwest, which, you know, have devastating impacts on deer populations, yet this obsession with people’s rights to own private property and own animals supersedes, like, common sense. “We’ll have deer farms so wealthy people can hunt trophy bucks at, like, $5,000 a pop,” —at the expense of literally all the deer in the state contracting chronic wasting disease because these farms are just... [*pauses*] biohazards. Why should people be allowed to contaminate deer in such a way? This is a no-brainer, yet we don’t do anything because there is this belief in the sacrality of white, male property ownership in this country, which is just terribly disturbing.

Colin: It sounds like the king and his royal hunt, again.

Tim: Exactly. [*pauses*] Exactly.

[*long pause*]

Colin: I don’t know what more to say. Because we know who Robin Hood is— 

Tim: [*laughs*]

Colin: —It’s the Tribble brothers! [*laughs*]

Tim: I love me a poacher. You know, the poachers, poachers get a bad rap a lot of times, but poachers are outlaws and we need our outlaws because they remind us what is important. You know, sometimes you need to break rules in order to understand our own values, and understand what’s wrong with our value systems. And that’s why Robin Hood is so endearing—because Robin Hood wasn’t afraid of living by natural law, that has a, sort of, deeper authenticity to broader human experience than this artificiality of a royal elite being able to control everything.

So yeah, I’m team Robin Hood.

[*Outro music starts*]

Colin: Assistant Professor Tim Frandy’s book, Inari Sámi Folklore, is available now. Links to his book and to some of his publicly available, peer-reviewed research can be found in the show notes for this episode or on our website.

Crossing North is a production of the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Today’s episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Colin Gioia Connors. Special thanks to Visiting Lecturer of Danish Kristian Næsby. Today’s music was used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson. Links to his music can be found in the show notes for this episode or on our website. Visit to learn more about the podcast and other exciting projects hosted by the Scandinavian Studies Department. If you are a current or prospective student, consider taking a course or declaring a major. You can find complete course listings for the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at Once again, that’s 

[*Outro music ends*]


Release Date: January 20, 2019.

This episode was written, edited, and produced by Colin Gioia Connors. Special thanks to Kristian Næsby.

Learn more about Dr. Frandy's work:

Theme music used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson.