by Alison Ramsey
Kaarina Kailo once taught in Chicoutimi, in northern Quebec. The experience of being close to aboriginal people left a lasting impression, and moved her to examine her own Finno-Ugric roots among the Sami aboriginals of northern Scandinavia.
Now, after a string of summers spent in northern Sami communities, the Concordia Women's Studies professor has participated in a historic Sami moment. She acted as external examiner for the first Sami/Finnish bilingual defence of a PhD, which was also the first thesis ever written on women Sami writers.
Unlike North American tradition, a doctoral defence in Finland is a public event. Because of its importance in Sami culture, busloads of natives from Arctic communities rode to Oulu University to witness this particular three-hour defence. It was timed for the Sami national day, February 6.
Student Vuokka Hirvonen, clad in traditional reindeer-skin boots, answered questions put by a Sami examiner who shunned Finland's subdued, mainstream professorial dress. Hi rvonen spoke in front of an audience clothed in vividly hued traditional Sami garments, whose colours are inspired by the midnight sun and aurora borealis. Kailo said she felt positively funereal in her black University of Toronto robes.
Hundreds attended and, afterwards, celebrated the event with speeches and a meal including reindeer meat and wild-berry dishes.
Just a few years earlier, Kailo had guided another Sami native, Rauna Kuokkanen, through the first MA done in Sami, on the topic of Sami literature. It was completed at Oulu University after being supervised by Kailo at Concordia.
"Not only did both of them do ground-breaking work in terms of research and finding out about their own culture, they did an equal amount of work to situate it in the global context" of current post-colonial philosophies, Kailo said.
They had to constantly translate into and from several languages: Finnish, Sami and the European languages of current thought.
Imagine, for instance, the effort that Hirvonen made to discuss lyrical poetry derived from yoiking, which is akin to Inuit throat-singing. She took those primal sounds, created to establish connections to people and nature, and analyzed them in terms of post-modern psychoanalytic thought.
"To my surprise, she used French feminist theories to explain the phenomenon," Kailo said, "Freudian concepts about pre-verbal drives in the body."
The women culled philosophies from North America and Europe. "It is different from what is happening in native circles here, which tend to shy away from any kind of mainstream Western philosophy to retain their unique flavour and discourse.
"These two students are building bridges to the Western world to show that these phenomena are not easily understood. That made for intriguing thesis material."
Not many professors fit the bill when Oulu University sought a bilingual examiner: Sami is a language native to about 100,000 people in communities scattered about Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia.
Parallels between Quebec natives and the Sami are evident: both have spent years struggling for official recognition as a founding people, and both were subjected to residential schools that repressed their native language and culture. For example, missionary Christians labelled yoiking as sinful because they believed the Sami were calling upon devil spirits. It was a fear that transferred itself to generations of natives who are only now reclaiming yoiking as their spiritual tradition.
Kailo is excited to be part of what she believes to be the cusp of a burgeoning trend in academic study. "It's a whole new field, comparative native storytelling aesthetics in literature here and in Europe," she said. "I am a pioneer, and these two women want to work with me as collaborators in setting up this completely new field."
A matched pair of books on the topic, edited and compiled by Kailo in collaboration with Sami scholar Elina Helander, are soon to be published. No Beginning, No End: The Sami Speak Up is a collection of writings by Sami leaders and authors. The English version is ready; the Finnish translation will be published in April. A double book-launch is planned at Concordia with contributing Sami scholars in attendance.
Kailo also gave a talk yesterday at Concordia on "Cultural Conversations: The Indigenous Sami and the Embodied Voice" in a series sponsored by the Centre for Community and Ethnic Studies and the Concordia-UQAM Chair in Ethnic Studies.