Enontekiön Kaaresuvanto 1975

Saami Culture Archive plays important role for research in the North

The University of Oulu maintains the Saami Culture Archive, which has been keeping a record of life in the Saami area for over a century. The digitalisation of the archive materials has been supported by donations made to the university, and so now it is easier than ever to make use of the archive in research and teaching. With the help of students and researchers with skills in the Saami languages, the secrets of the archive are now also being opened up for use in multidisciplinary research in the northern regions.

The University of Oulu's Giellagas Institute has a special national duty to promote teaching and research on the Saami language and culture, and maintaining and developing the Saami Culture Archive is an important part of this task. The Culture Archive contains a wealth of interview records and image and video material relating to the daily life of the Saami people. 

The archive supports research and teaching on the Saami languages and culture and serve as a channel for the Saami people connecting them to past generations. In addition, the archive offers material collected over the course of more than a century that can be used in multidisciplinary Arctic research.

University Lecturer Marko Jouste, who works with the Culture Archive, compares the Saami Archive to Kalevala, in which a version of Finnish folk stories was collected and stored by Lönnrot. In the Saami Archive, the history and culture of the Saami people are described in the people's own voices and in the Saami languages. The oldest interviewees were born in the 1840s, and they take the listener to a world completely different from the one in which we now live.

‘Imagine being able to hear the voice of your ancestors from many years ago. The power of the human voice is incredible. It can take you somewhere far, far away,’ says Jouste.

The memory of the north

According to Anni-Siiri Länsman, Director of the Giellagas Institute, the recording of material in the Saami language is particularly important for the Saami of today, most of whom live outside the Saami area and haven’t had contact with Saami speakers, thus missing the opportunity to learn the language. The archive contains material spanning multiple decades for each Saami family.

‘These interviews encompass the whole lifespan.’

‘Through the archive, Saami students can connect directly with previous generations. The archive is the memory of the nation and an indispensable resource for the Saami,' Länsman says.

Jouste also emphasises the personal significance of the archive for the Saami people. There are multiple interviews recorded with particular individuals that in some cases span up to six decades.

‘These interviews encompass the whole lifespan,’ says Jouste. 

Länsman highlights in particular the interview material covering the life of Saami women. No research has yet been carried out on the daily lives of Saami women.

‘The material is very interesting. It would be possible to examine how the position of a woman in the north has changed. We have studied to some extent their educational paths: how Saami women in remote areas either left to seek further education or decided not to,’ Länsman explains.

Snow know-how for use in climate change research

In addition to its value for the Saami people, the Saami Cultural Archive also offer new opportunities for interdisciplinary research. Interviews with the Saami people living in the northern conditions have gathered a wide range of descriptions of life in the Arctic. Researchers from different fields can obtain information from the archive on topics such as climate change.

‘The know-how about snow contained in the archive also provides a lot of information on Arctic knowledge and expertise in a wider sense. A whole century later on, it is very interesting to examine what the snow conditions were like at different times: how people dealt with it, how it was discussed, what kind of issues it connected with, and how they could read the snow conditions in different circumstances,’ Länsman adds.

Nature is a central part of the life of the Saami, and research data can be drawn from a range of different archive materials.

‘For research on climate change, for example, a natural scientist could make use of data on salmon populations. We have a lot of recordings that talk about fishing, and you can find all sorts of information from them,’ says Länsman.

Länsman hopes that research groups from different fields will utilise the Saami Archive for research purposes.

‘The intention is not to restrict the archive for use only by the Saami. If someone who does not know the Saami language wants to make use of the archive, they should though consider the need for translation already when applying for funding. Saami language speakers can serve as intermediaries and interpreters.’

Preserving the everyday life of the Saami people

The Saami Archive is continuously being developed. The accessibility of the material is being improved by introducing new technical solutions that enable more precise research into language and culture.

‘In the ideal situation, it would be possible to search the whole archive for the same theme, in the way that you can with Google archive material. For example, it would be possible to search for experiences of illness throughout the whole century covered, making use of the entire archive,’ Jouste explains.

‘The archive is important not only for the Saami. The Saami are part of this northern region, part of northern history and of research into life in the North.’

New material is continuously being collected and added to the Culture Archive. Länsman hopes that it will be possible in the future to conduct more interviews on a particular theme, such as Saami disputes or the culture of children and young people, a topic which are currently completely absent from the archive. Everyday experiences include interesting research material.

‘Saami disputes come into public awareness through activists and other vocal people. But what are the thoughts and opinions of those who do not write in social media or newspapers? How do these disputes affect their lives?’

At the Giellagas Institute, the archive is seen as highly valuable for the entire Arctic region.

‘The archive is important not only for the Saami. The Saami are part of this northern region, part of northern history and of research into life in the North,’ Länsman concludes.

Text: Terhi Suominen

Photo: Kaaresuvanto, Enontekiö 1975, photograph collection of the Saami Culture Arcive

Last updated: 9.4.2020