Once a ruling majority in a free landscape, the Cap of the Norths indigenous people are now bound by borders and regulation, divided amongst nations.
In Norway, Georg Ivanowitz is presently the only permanent resident in what has become the dedicated area for a now minority indigenous group; Skoltebyen in Neiden.
– We’ve always had it pulled down over our heads, Georg Ivanowitz says from his chair in his little house, situated in the protected area that once was his familys’ summer residence, where he grew up.
– For me, this place has always just been a place to live, the now 67 years old man points out.
MEET GEORG IN THE VIDEO BELOW:
Georg’s kin belongs to the parish around the Neiden River, one of Cap of the Norths waterways to the Barents Sea. He identifies his father as a true «Neiden Skolt» and thereby uses the unofficial term «Skolt» to name the indigenous group. His mother was a Finnish immigrant.
- Neiden is a village in the municipality of Sør-Varanger in Troms- og Finnmark County, Norway.
- The town has around 250 inhabitants.
- Sør-Varanger is the only Norwegian municipality that shares a land border with Russia, and also has a point where the three borders of Finland, Norway and Russia meets.
- The county is the largest and least populated county of Norway.
From rock to paper
Georg tells of a life on the move after work. He names the areas mine, Sydvaranger gruve, on the list of different professions and places he has been. He is also amongst the first ten people in Noway who could adorn themselves with a certificate of competence as and outfield guide, from the agricultural school in the nearby town, Tana.
– I’ve been all around, but Neiden has always been the base, he declares.
All of his life he has fished, harvested and cultivated his land, just as his ancestor’s did. At one time when he noticed the population of grouse declining, he stopped hunting them. His thought was that those he did not shoot would have the opportunity to multiply.
The summer harvest is mainly focused on cloudberries, called «multebœr’in Norwegian. The name of the berry carries a story of the areas history that Georg likes to highlight:
– Yes, do remember that it is called ‘multebœr, and not ‘multer’, he points out and emphasises the original word over the shorter version that is widely used;
– The name originates from the fact that in the olden days, people paid their dues to the bailiff with those berries.
Read the Norwegian version here
The word that names the berry ‘mult’ derives from the old word for fine, ‘mulkt’, and sounds quite the same. By highlighting the transformation of the word, Georg touches upon how progress and time bring changes where original meaning can be lost or forgotten.
– Father explained that the Skolts went directly from the Stone Age and into the Age of Paper. The Skolts did not realize that that paper meant such a great deal, Georg explains. Thus illustrating his understanding of what started the complications in the development around his kin.
Georg maintains the traditions of his ancestors which is aligned and in harmony with nature. A tradition not governed by a calendar of fixed appointments. Where nature rules, when for example berries are ripe, or the leaves on branches are ready to harvest for use in the sauna.
It’s not of necessity that Georg continues this traditional style of life – it’s by choice. Interestingly, he is protected as retired from work within the Norwegian state – the system that once overran his predecessors’ culture.
The regulated property that Georg resides in year-round is unhabitated around him. It’s a stark contrast to the lively common area it was in his childhood – housing multiple families. Present life in the village echoes the historical use of the place in the warmer seasons: winter brings a quiet hibernation mode, while the sun and warmth thaw nature back to life in the summer.
Locals alongside tourists flock to the riverside in the summer season, mainly for fishing, but also to gaze upon and walk in the cultural memories. A main attraction is the little Orthodox chapel which is Georgs nearest neighbour.
– Previously, there was a sign marked St. Georgs chapel, pointing towards my driveway, Georg mentions.
The sign has had many a wanderer on his doorstep looking for the structure that shares his name:
– They have removed that sign now, and put up another one, a little bit further down the road directing to the Sami Parliaments parkingspot. But people still drive in here and walk on my plot in search of the chapel. Sometimes I engage in a chat, if I have the energy;
– It has been a ball and chain, around my foot in any case, Georg states about having to deal with another level of regulation from the state, as a permanent resident in a cultural heritage area;
– We’ve had a reversed development here. From when I was growing up where Skoltebyen was full of people – now it’s just me. And when I disappear, the museum will probably take over what’s left.
Survival of the majority
A written language for the indigenous people was not officially established until the 1970s, in Finland. Not only does it indicate that all historical, written documentation about the ethnic group is from an outside perspective, it points to a paradox in the introduction of constitutional premises in writing in the face of an oral natural culture:
– The Skolts did not own nature – nature owned them, Georg declares and points out the fundamental difference between the culture that ruled in the freedom of northern nature, and the majorities that expanded over them;
– Almost everything that lives in herds has a form of war when it comes to taking over habitat. You feel safe in teams, and what is around is dangerous. Brutality is inherited from a long time ago – possibly all the way back to the Cambrian explosion, he airs simply, about the development of the world and continues;
– Maybe life in general is just based on violence and takeover. I see research being done on why the other hominids disappeared. Was it climate, was it disease or was it us, they ask. For me, the answer is simple: We are definitely a part of that answer.
The Cambrian explosion is a period after the ice age 541 million years ago that embraced the entire earth, where a number of new organisms appeared that were the origin of all animal groups we know today.
Georg has set up a small workshop on his plot, where he handmakes knives. All photos: Lina Winge
An ancient parliament
The history of the minority group is not so easily explained. Scholars argue about how man came to be in the northern coastal landscapes.
It is said that lemmings and reindeer were the first to move to the area after the ice retreated and made it livable. What research can confirm of human life in the area that is now the border country between Norway, Russia and Finland, is a hunting and trapping culture 2500 years ago. This way of life was moving according to seasons and resources, and was shown to be systematized and organized from the documentation of Georg’s ancestors.
– The Neiden Skolts had the area all the way from Iijärvi, Inari to the sea at Kjøøya bordering the Pasvik Skolts.
In this way, Georg frames the northwesternmost of the seven areas that were regulated and managed by the indigenous people, long before national borders.
The previous area distributions are today called «sjidd» in the written language of the 70s. They spread over an area from the Varangerfjord almost to the Kolafjord near Murmansk, and from the west side of Sevettijärvi, Finland towards the White Sea in Russia.
The area belonging to the Neiden Skolts was called Njauddâm, and is today divided across the Neiden River, between Norway and Finland.
Nordregio’s map-project, Saaʹmijânnam – The Skolt Sámi Land.
The indigenous’ boundaries mainly followed along the watersheds, where the large watercourses were the main nerves in the areas.
– Access to fish was very important for the Skolts, Georg explains about the people who moved between the inland and the coast, along rivers towards the sea, for access to the seasons’ resources.
He further explains how his origins regulated their societies:
– The Skolts had their own social system from ancient times. It was called Norrõs – an old as the hills parliament.
The demarcated land areas were social and political units where common natural resources were exclusively a right of use. Private property rights were limited to personal effects and loose objects.
Regulation of the area and resources were discussed and decided in a council. The council consisted of a representative from each household in each ‘unit’. The system also provided a larger dialogue about the joint area, with annual meetings with representatives from each Sjidd.
– It was social democracy, Georg explains about the structure of the society.
The Russian danger
Born in 1953 as Georg Mikkelsen, Skoltebyens remaining resident is from the generation with Norwegian as identity from birth. Those before him lived through about a century of Norwegianization in the name of nation-building.
– We were told that father, when he started school, had a teacher who did not think Ivanovitsj was anything nice, says Georg diplomatically about how the surname was Norwegified back then.
Georg’s grandfather first name was Mikit, which is Mikkel in the Norwegian version. Thus, Georg’s father was given Mikkelsen [Mikkels son] as a surname, after him .
– We were considered the Russian danger as we had Russian surnames, Georg confirms about the treatment of the people from the border area.
Tsarist Russia made its mark there already in the 16th century, with the introduction of Orthodox faith and chapels.
A large area around St. Georgs chapel is burial grounds. How far back it dates is unknown, but C14 tests has been done on 10 random remains, where the oldest showed to be 623 years old. The last burial in the area was done in 1910. Photos: Lina Winge
When his big brother presented the idea of changing names back again, to a 20-year-old Georg sometime in the 1970s, Georg Mikkelsen was not difficult to get involved:
– I had cursed the last name Mikkelsen all my life, as it was palmed off on, he explains. Since then he has been Georg Ivanowitz.
‘Skolt’ is also an external concept. It does not appear in written Norwegian sources until 1830. Earlier writings use variations of ‘Finns’, for example, Rydzefinder (Russianfinns), Grentze-finner (Borderfinns), Østenhafske-finner (Estaern Sea-finns) og Fællesfinner (Commonfinns).
– There is still something on the Finnish side called Mikitan Kenttä (Mikit’s Land), after my grandfather, Georg says.
He places it a little past Sevettijärvi in high north of Finland, and while talking about the bordering nation, he points out that the process of nationalizing indigenous peoples is not final. On the Finnish side, they are well on their way to a revitalization of their culture.
– I have always been Skolt. That’s what I’ve been called since I was little, and that’s what I remember the old people who lived here said, and when we went to relatives in Sevettijärvi, I was ‘Koltta’, Georg says firmly.
Although the term has not necessarily always been an advantage to wear, and the culture was on its way to disappearing without a trace, it is within it he find he belongs:
– It is probably the family and the story that makes me a Skolt. Everything that the Skolts used to do has been banned. Käpälä fishing is the only living tradition – the language has long since disappeared.
Georg, who is defined as an indigenous person in both of the academic terms: Skolt Sámi and Eastern Sámi, has recommended Professor Einar Niemi as the best source for the history of his people.
In the Center for Sámi Studies’ series of writings from 2007, we find under Niemi’s title, Eastern Sámi – border minority and national problem, another term for the people:
«The Eastern Sámi are a borderpeople, who were initially more or less dominant in the northeasternmost areas of Fenno-Skandia,» Niemi writes.
– I would rather call myself ‘Lapp’ (Patch) than Sámi, Georg responds to that, introducing another historical and outside term deriving from what is now Swedens name for its northernmost province: Lappland (Laponia).
Alongside «Skolt’ the term ‘Lapp’ has carried no positive connotations, and have been regarded offensive, but Georg embraces them both.
He thinks out loud that the word ‘Skolt’ gives him associations to Kola, which is a part of the indigenous area [now owned by Russia], and also that Skolt is a name to honor what was before.
At Georgs home. Photos: Lina Winge
Niemi describes a tenacious culture within the term border, because unlike other indigenous people, in the Scandinavian northern area they have not been isolated from contact with other cultures.
The culture was built around natural economics (self-sufficient with local resources, and household organized), but adapted to the development of the trading market around. As long as they had the vital economic basis in fishing, hunting and reindeer husbandry, the collective stood strong. Right up to the 19th century.
– It is a simplification to say that the demarcation in 1826 was what was decisive for the destruction of our society. There’s been a long process and development, both before and after the borders were agreed, Georg points out.
The efforts for sovereignty on the Cap of the North traces back to the Viking Age, with Norways claims on Kola, and Russias on Finnmark. By 1613, the area was taxed as common districts by various distributions of Denmark, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Finland.
But it is not until the 19th century that the primitive society encounters decisive measures that gradually remove the traditional cultural basis:
Expanding mountain- and farm reindeer husbandry, the struggle for rights to resources of the the river, and the introduction of private property rights, Niemi lists. The 19th century also brought with it Norwegianisation policies as a means of asserting the nation in the area.
All outside pressure on the previous dominant group of the area group, changes their status to what Niemi describes as «a minority in the minority» in their own settlement area.
– It lead to that those who came to, have taken over. With the help of the state – both reindeer and river and everything, Georg explains about the present status, and adds:
-– Now it is the nation states that have the papers on ownership of our areas. The ownership I and we should have had, is completely bypassed.
From the first drawing of national borders in 1826, and the redrawing after both world wars. Maps from the project The Saaʹmijânnam – The Skolt Sámi Land project as shown on Nordregio’s cite. Cartographer: Linus Rispling.
The biggest crime
Inside Georg’s small house, behind the front door where you have to pull the handle upwards to open, the usual message from the stressless chair in the living room is:
– Now press that start button and take a cup from the cupboard.
It is a modern coffee machine that fills much of the space in the small kitchen in the hallway. At the touch of a button, it turns whole beans into steaming hot drinks. For each cup of coffee, Georg shares more and more of his story.
– It was the Courts decision in 1848 that broke our backs. That’s when we lost the exclusive right to the area, a right that had been practiced at all times, says Georg;
– After that, there was an equal right to the river. Even if you were an immigrant of the same year, you had the same rights as the Skolts. That made it easy, for a then majority of refugees who came to the village, to vote the Skolts away, says Georg.
He settles in a quiet, thoughtful mode before continuing pondering that this is the doctrine the todays governing fishing community is still based on.
– I think it was a slap in the face for the Skolts, he suggests about how a society suddenly lost its ‘main nerve’ – the river.
Neidenelvens Fiskefellesskap currently manages the salmon fishing in the Neiden River, and with it, the only surviving tradition after the Skolts: the castnet fishing called Käpälä. The still living traditions current name was given by the Finnish immigrants who came to Neiden in the 1830s. The word Käpälä means paw, and refers to how a bear grabs fish.
– Before, the cast net fishing at the pond, was called «livjelak» which means to cast, Georg explains about the old tradition of throwing the net over the salmon while it stands and rests before it throws itself up the waterfall to spawn.
The net itself has had its own evolution; originally made from roots, later hemp and now nylon.
KÄPÄLÄ FISHING IN SKOLTEFOSSEN, NEIDEN:
The 19th century continued its development which made it difficult for the people to upkeep their basis for life on the current Norwegian territory. The border barrier between Finland and Norway of 1852 and the subsequent Norwegian reindeer grazing law of 1854 limited the way of life. The 20th century began with local authorities splitting up the Skolt land. Georg believes it was the focus on mining that ruled:
– In 1905, Sydvaranger [the mine] was to get electricity from here [planning a hydropower station by the river] . In order to expropriate property, they divided the common Skoltland into five parts, according to the families who lived here. Nothing like a power plant ever happened in Neiden – there is no landscapes suitable for such a facility, Georg informs about a haunted process that proved to have major consequences for the locals.
The families from the culture were left with private rights on a former joint property. Which in Georg’s opinion was the worst consequence ever to happen upon the people:
– The Norwegian state created quarrel by dividing up the Skoltland. Suddenly it was about «mine» and not «ours». It is the biggest crime that has been committed against the Skolts, he declares.
From community to private law
Georg believes that the subdivision of the common land was the biggest crime in a process that has led to a reverse development for the ‘Skolts’ in Norway. Now he is the only one left in Skoltebyen. He points out that emigration and immigration is not a new phenomenon:
– For centuries, people have moved both here and there. This place here can not take care of many. When there were good times, i.e. not disease and hunger, and there were many people here – people had to travel ‘out to seek their fortune’ as it is called in the fairy tales.
He therefore believes that there are many around the world who do not know that they are ‘Skolt’.
But that’s not what makes the crime, according to Georg. Although the introduction of the states private law led to some people changing their properties to Neiden’s new housing estate, and some moving out for various reasons. The real crime he finds in the fragmentation of the way of thinking:
– When we were together about joint ownership, the merit was that the community was well, he clarifies.
And in the community were not only the people with ownership included, there were considerations for all levels of nature.
He points out that his family has statutes as indigenous peoples in a society that constantly categorizes and divides the world into definitions. Georg would rather focus on the fact that everyone has a historical origin.
– Everyone who lives here are actually immigrants, he reflects on how the common area has had a continuous encounter between, and a mixture of, cultures.
Georg reflects on being a minority and bullying. As a private person and as a group and flock mentality from the dawn of time. About societies built around loyalty, before and after supreme laws were introduced. About limited areas and resources, and the right of the strongest and of survival of the fittest:
– I do not carry grudges anymore, even though I have felt sorry for myself for many years, he shares.
And even though his inclusive culture was overwhelmed by just that; opening up to the unknown and alien into the existing society, Georg still thinks of the community:
– The challenge will probably be to try to make something good out of what is around here in the old common district, he concludes.
Ä´vv Skolt Sámi Museum
«Neiden Bordertown: a meeting between ethnic groups and the struggle for resources», Steinar Wikan/ «Grensebygda Neiden: møte mellom folkegrupper og kampen om ressursene», Steinar Wikan.
Skoltebyen cultural area, management plan from the Sami Parliament, 2001 – 2002/ Skoltebyen Kulturmiljø, forvaltningsplan fra Sametinget, 2001 – 2002.
Eastern Sámi – border minority and national problem»
in the Center for Sami Studies’ publication series no. 14: «Cross-border reindeer husbandry before and after 1905», Einar Niemi/ «Østsamene – grenseminoritet og nasjonalt problem» i Senter for Samiske studiers skriftserie nr. 14: «Grensoverskridende Reindrift før og etter1905», Einar Niemi
The Government’s NOU from 1997/ Regjeringens NOU fra 1997.