From Arctic tundra to Pacific ocean: Talking story with Sámi Activist Jenni Laiti

“As the ice melts under our feet we think of our brothers and sisters fighting for climate justice in the Pacific, today we all stand together!” – Jenni Laiti

We are standing in a circle at Notre Dame, Paris – which is on the ile de cite – (the city island in french) – we are occupying their islands because of the impact of climate change on our pacific islands. The metaphor is appropriately poetic particularly for three of the indigenous factions organising on the streets of Paris. Sámi, Pacific and our brothers and sisters from Turtle Island. The Sámi have brought with them a stone from the Arctic tundra to give to us. The stone has arrived in Paris as a part of the ‘Run for your life relay’. A relay about climate justice timed to coincide with Cop21 – the Paris Climate Change conference. I envision that the stone has a mauri, a life force, an essence, a story perhaps imbued in its core telling us the different ways the Arctic tundra is a relative of the Pacific ocean.

Take a stone in your hand and close your fist around it until it starts to beat, live, speak and move – Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

The protest is not legal. A ‘State of Emergency’ has been called in response to the Paris terrorist attacks. On the evening of Friday 13 November 2015, a series of coordinated attacks occurred in Paris. The attackers killed 130 people, including 89 at the Bataclan theatre, where they took hostages before engaging in a stand-off with police. Another 368 people were injured, 80–99 seriously. As usual the State uses this as an excuse to shut down political dissent. Sports games continue to be played despite one of the bombs going off at Stade de France, a sports stadium.

occupying islands - occupying notre dame
Île de la Cité – Notre Dame

We get our local French speaking friends to tell the big goons with machine guns parading the area that actually we are good friendly catholics ( we aren’t), on a pilgrimage to pray to Jesus. We figure that will give us enough time to have our ceremony before they start getting annoyed. To be fair we have a pastor from Tahiti with us so I figure Jesus wouldn’t mind, the banners and subsequent chanting are however definitely not biblical.

Pacific oceans and Arctic tundra are invoked and our collective ancestors respected; along with the knowledge that our struggles are an intimately connected eco-system. The ceremony ends around about the time the goons with the guns start asking where our permit is from the Church.

Photo credit: Allan Lissner – Indigenous Environmental Network

Among the Sámi is Jenni Laiti an indigenous anarchist. My partner in activist crime, Sina says – hey bro someone like us. Cool.

For some anarchism is more than just a series of theories and strategies on dismantling capitalism, it forms the core part of their identity. For some it sits alongside a primary identity along with some others, I’m a bit that way myself. Meeting Indigenous activists that use the organising tools that are typified with anarchism is like meeting an old friend from your hometown.

How did they get there? Did they travel on the same roads to arrive here in this the same ideological place at this exact time?

I thought it would be good to talk with her a little bit about indigeneity, anarchism and Climate Change.

Photo credit: Kristian Buus

How did you come to anarchist style of organising?

Well I had worked for the Sámi Parliament for a while and we would write a lot asking the Government to listen but they wouldn’t and it was very frustrating. All of this writing and no action. They wouldn’t listen. There was a protest in Gállok resisting against an iron ore mine that was on our traditional territories. I felt like the land was calling me to be there. The site is near Jokkmokk, an important Sámi town just above the Arctic circle.

There were a lot of people from all over the world. We were protesting the owners of the mine a British company, Beowulf Mining PLC and its Swedish subsidiary, Jokkmokk Iron Mines AB. When I first got there there were environmentalists there. It was about protecting the river and the environment but within a month it became an Indigenous rights issue. If the mine is opened, the migration route and utilisation of winter pastures will be endangered for three Sámi reindeer herding communities. Our traditional way of living would slowly die out and the land would never recover. We have seen it in other places. We made Gállok a Sámi rights issue, there was a lot of violence from the police with a lot of media and people could see how Sweden were treating Indigenous Peoples. The environmentalists were like ‘we don’t represent anyone we are anarchists.’ At the time I just wanted to organise so I would get pissed off at them but when I look back they were right. We had these groups to support the Sámi reindeer community, local environmentalists and the sweden national environmentalists – so a lot of different people.

So we went there and I said hey should we do some Artivist thing – we could do this blockade with Art. A lot of cool things happened, many people established themselves as artists for example. It was the beginning for many of us.

I became an anarchist there. People ask if I want to be an artivist or an activist but I say right now – I call myself an anarchist. This allows me to be free. A lot of what we achieved at Gállok was because of anarchist ways of organising. To decolonize and indigenize we need to destroy the colonial structures and anarchism is a powerful way to do it.

Gállok Resistance Movement is self-organizing movement – it´s like an ecosystem. In our ecosystem we have small groups who are working inside a bigger groups. We have good alliances, coalitions and networks of different groups. The movement is free and anarchistic. It doesn’t have a leader, organisation or campaign, the resistance is rising from the grassroots. In our ecosystem, when something happens, it has a snowball effect. It´s growing, gathering, affecting, spreading, continuing, reaching, changing.

Sámi protestPhoto credit : Daniel Voskoboynik

Tell us a bit about where you come from?

Where we come from in the arctic we communicate with the trees, the rocks and the earth. The environment is very sensitive so we have learn to listen which means people tend to be quiet. We have a special connection with reindeer without them we would not have survived here for 10,000 years, because on the tundra nothing is growing. Reindeer gives us everything, clothing, food, eating the stomach gives us much needed minerals. we use every part. My grandma made even her own soap with reindeer bones. We do not own them instead we say they are owned by the wind. We do not farm them because they are free grazing animals who are meant to wander. We migrate with them. It is a colonial way to see animals as lesser. Animals are equal to people. They are our first priority, when they suffer we suffer.

I think the main reasons why our movement has achieved so much in such a short time is that Jokkmokk is a strong Sámi centre, with lot of Sámi and many Sámi reindeer herding communities, who have good collaboration and resources. In Jokkmokk there are also strong individuals who take the fight and they have good networks.

How do you think we can decolonise the Climate Change movement?

On one hand there is a lot of talk acknowledging that Indigenous Peoples are on the Frontlines of Climate Change particularly by big personalities like Naomi Klein who have inspired the movement to say that we Indigenous Peoples should take our place at the front of the climate movement. On the other hand I feel pressure from the NGOs who I have been working with – they say well yes you are on the frontlines and you should go first – but can you share your solutions with us. I feel that they don’t get it. They are in some ways exploiting us and using us as photo opportunities. They need to first respect us and to listen to what we have to say with integrity.

It some ways it is delusional to be in Paris we were there for this big moment. Having a local struggle like what is happening in Gállok makes the struggle real because it is hard to connect global ideas like climate change

It is great but it is disconnected with the reality of our people back at home. When I come home to my village I see that we as a people need to gather as a herd. People are not yet awake but the issues are so urgent we instead need to be running. There is this saying that the movement cannot go faster than the people.

How can indigenous peoples connect on anarchist perspectives?

It seems to me to a natural fit we are made to act it is really important in our culture to do things collectivity – it is also a big process of decolonisation, how do we decolonise together even with us here in the Indigenous world. If we want to decolonise if we want to build a new world we have to destroy these structures So that we can build something totally new. We do have these organisations like the Sámi parliament but they are too weak to destroy colonialism. So we must do it.

Photo credit Mona Caron

An interview with Ghazali Ohorella a Human Rights lawyer from Maluku

In the build up to the Week of Peace we sat down with Human Rights Lawyer Ghazali Ohorella to talk about the impact of militarism in his homeland of Maluku, a group of islands in the Pacific.

Ghazali Ohorella

Could you tell about yourself?

Well, to know me, is to know my heritage. I’m a proud descendant of the Alifuru people, the Indigenous Peoples of the South-Maluku islands, home town of my dad is Tulehu and of my mom is Aboru/Hulaliu.

I can’t blame you if you don’t know where it is. We’re an archipelago comprising of 999 islands in an area of almost 75000 sq kilometers located between the Philippines and Australia, with around 2 million souls living under military Indonesian occupation as they took over our islands right after we became independent in 1950. Since the 16th century Maluku was known as the “Spice Islands” as cloves and nutmeg grew only in our area, which is also the biggest reason why Europeans came to our neck of the woods. The spice trade created enormous wealth for the Arab world, and the colonial powers from Portugal and the Netherlands, last mentioned colonized us for more than 300 years until 1950.
A bit about us. The Alifuru are originally Melanesian in origin like our relatives in for example West-Papua, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Norfolk Islands, and we have over 100 indigenous languages on the islands, mostly Polynesian related, just to give you an example here’s how I count from 1 to 10. “Sane, Rua, Toru, Ha’a, Rima, No’o, Hitu, Waru, Siwa, Husae”.

Whereas our lands and waters are the core of our Peoples, our language our strength, our ancestors our guides, the promotion and protection of the Alifuru heritage for future generations is my goal. That is why I have been advocating for Alifuru rights and rights of Indigenous Peoples across the world in international fora since 2003, with some interesting roles like co-chair of a round table of the UN General Assembly on the occasion of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples held in September 2014, legal expert to Indigenous organizations, board member to Drumbeat Media and the International Organisation for Self-Determination and Equality.

Can you tell us about how militarism has impacted your people?

Colonialism and militarism go hand in hand in a Maluku context, like I said before the Maluku islands has been colonized by the Dutch for more than 300 year, first by the Dutch East-Indies Company (VOC), which was often described as the first multinational corporation in the world. Mind you, this was no ordinary “company”, better said it was everything but a company, it behaved like a State.

The traders were politicians, bureaucrats avant-la-lettre, surrounded and supported by a strong military apparatus to implement the decisions they made. This Dutch trading company controlled a large area of the world, politically, militarily and economically it made its mark on the world.

The main purpose of the VOC was to colonize, obtain and retain control over the trade in spices from primarily South-East Asia, amongst others the Maluku islands. To date the world knows the VOC by its core business, however as a so-called trading company it excelled at the political and military level, with penetrating implications for millions of Indigenous Peoples, including the Alifuru.

The VOC was very aggressive, it used its vast navy and army to establish a powerful trading network by destroying not only competitors, for the Alifuru peoples, if one did not cooperate or if people simply got in the way, the VOC did not hesitate to exterminate entire communities, their lands, territories, livelihoods, the use of violence was their “ordinary business”. That regime lasted until the 1800 when we became a Dutch colony.

Now, fast forward to the early 1900s, just like I said we were a Dutch colony called the “Dutch East-Indies”, and over the years a lot of men joined the colonial army to be able to sustain their families as decent paying jobs were artificially scarce. The impact of militarism became even greater when the Dutch East-Indies decolonized in 1950. On that occasion we proclaimed our independence of the Republic of the South-Moluccas.

We didn’t do that just for the fun of it, our council was very concerned with the future of the State of East-Indonesia which we were still a part of, mind you Sukarno was mobilizing to invade all the other States and declare a Republic. Not wanting the roughly 4000 Maluku soldiers to be around to defend their newborn Republic, Sukarno asked the Dutch to ship all the soldiers and their families to The Netherlands. The Dutch promised to Maluku natives to be returned to their Republic after 6 months. Once they arrived in Holland the soldiers were demobilized and the 13,500 souls were left hung out to dry in former Nazi camps. The promise was never kept, 6 months turned into 60 years, and meanwhile we have grown to around 50,000.

Can you tell us about the relationship between militarism and colonisation?

So, as you can see militarism and colonialism are inseparable forces which have shaped Maluku, whilst currently that military-dominated regime rules Indonesia came to power with Sukarno and since then has been ruthless in repressing opposition. That the military mainly serves to maintain internal control, and to run the government proves that Indonesia is built upon militarism and cannot survive without. Militarism of Indonesia fosters also an aggressive nationalism, which in practice means state domination, colonialism and repression of Indigenous peoples which try to regain their independence.

Mind you, throughout Indonesian history, the military has recruited, trained and supported militia and quasi-military groups to do its dirty work. I think Von Clausewitz said “To achieve peace, one must prepare for war”, a creed that Indonesia is about to follow aided by these quasi-military groups. Last year Indonesia launched a program compulsory for all Indonesians under 50 years old called Bela Negara, it is a program which is more about politics and maintaining the colonial areas rather than any effort to establish a national defence system. Bela Negara aims to recruit over the next 10 years over 100 million militant cadres across its archipelago. Consisting of two components: a general program for citizens who have not had prior training, and a special refresher or advanced program for people who have already been trained, to allow them to reach national defence standard.

There is a significant risk and fear that the program will increase the frequency of human rights violations that are already occurring. However, it is hoped that this militarism feeds the desire for fundamental freedoms of Indigenous peoples, that they become more determined than ever before to continue their struggle for freedom, dignity and the right to self-determination.

How important is solidarity between Indigenous Peoples in the Pacific?

Look, if you consider that our region comprises ⅓ of the planet, most island States are established by Indigenous peoples, and be proud of the fact that there are many language cognates and we share common history, you can see that there’s much that binds us and can take us forward.

I’ve seen the insides of the UN for some years now, shown support for Pacific Indigenous Peoples inside and outside the security zone, have roamed the halls with many of our island delegations, and often together burned the midnight oil writing collective statements. 

But there is an undercurrent, most times I see that the Pacific indigenous meetings are attended by no more than a handful of people (mostly because of lack of funding), solidarity often disappears more quickly than it appears, there’s a bottleneck on some urgent processes but little to no advocacy on all the important ones.

More than often we are proud of the pre-existing solidarity, the whakapapa or genealogy that we all share, yet we should be conscious that pride can be a pitfall for solidarity. More than often we face challenges into finding that solidarity again, we are already a force to be reckoned, imagine what we can achieve when our solidarity is robust.

There is so much we can achieve as a region, Indigenous peoples worldwide are fighting for their rights, at every process imaginable, with solidarity amongst Indigenous Peoples in the Pacific, as a region, we can lighten the load of the entire movement, be more spread across the board, and make the Indigenous movement more stronger than ever.