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Sámi activists speak out at independence ball

Two Sámi guests at the Independence Day ball on Sunday sported the number "169" on their bodies in symbolic defiance of what they see as Finland's inaction over indigenous rights.

Pauliina Feodoroff ja Milja Sarkola.
Pauliina Feodoroff with partner Milja Sarkola at the Independence Day Ball, complete with their hand-drawn 169 symbols. Image: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva

Pauliina Feodoroff is the chair of the Saa'mi Nue'tt cultural association and a director and screenwriter. She was invited to the Presidential Palace for Finnish Independence Day with her partner Milja Sarkola, and both attended – attired not just in party clothes but also with the figure "169" inked on their bodies. Feodoroff sported her number on the side of her head while Sarkola displayed it on her right arm.

Feodoroff explains that the gesture was partly to protest the government's failure to ratify the ILO 169 agreement that protects indigenous peoples' rights, but also to protest Finland's entire stance on the Sámi people, as well as their identity and culture.

"The past year has been one big fiasco for Sámi rights," Feodoroff says. "Spring's legal package failure and the deletion of the clause on Sámi rights from the Forestry Act this autumn are serious signs that the slow but steady development of Sámi rights in Finland has come to a standstill."

She says that the Sámi people have had the responsibility of improving their own rights thrust upon them.

"This is the wrong kind of politics in the wrong way and at the wrong time," Feodoroff says.

Nearly stayed home, activist hand forced

Feodoroff says she almost declined the invitation to the ball as a form of protest, but that her friends helped her see the situation in a different light.

"At first I thought that in this political situation I couldn't engage in the ball's strict etiquette, which would not allow for making political statements. But my friends told me that staying at home certainly wouldn't do anything for our cause, either."

The organisation chair says she does not believe the situation will improve anytime soon, but that she has resolved to fight for the rights of her culture for the sake of future generations.

"I haven't seen anything in public discourse pointing towards things improving," Feodoroff says. "But I do not want my children to grow up with this unresolved conflict, which is why I wrote 169 next to my temple."

While the numbers seem to clearly refer to ILO 169, Feodoroff and Sarkola say that the numbers also symbolise the entire collective struggle that Sámi people and culture are facing in Finland on a daily basis.

Feodoroff says that Sámi people will be forced to action until the situation changes. Feodoroff noted that critics of ILO 169 have said that the instrument is dated, but she says its goal remains valid.

"Stop the forced integration of Sámi people into the Finnish mainstream population. Our people are still being structurally forced to integrate to become Finnish, into Finnishness. As long as these structures are not dismantled, we will be forced to continue this unfortunate existence."

Update: This article was edited for clarity at 11.34 am on 8.12.2015.

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