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