“Bet we’re the first Māori to come here,” I whispered to Toby when we landed in Inari, a tiny village 300 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle. It was 12 years ago, and we were guests of Skábmagovat, the northernmost film festival in the world. As temperatures slipped to 10-below and an absent-minded sun wandered off from the violet, velvet sky, I figured few in the remote settlement would have heard of New Zealand, let alone Māori.
Cue Nice Lady, arriving to pick us up.
“You know Timoti Karetu?” she chirped merrily.
Our jaws dropped.
“Want to see our kōhanga reo?”
“They’re learning Māori?” I stammered. “In Finland?”
She looked at me like I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. It turns out the Sámi inhabitants of Inari are using the Māori language-nest model to preserve a language spoken by only 370 people in the world.
Newsflash to right-wingers: Māori are globally hot, even if we are locally not.
While racists here defend assimilation as a democratic right, the real headline is that Māori have long been considered pioneers by other indigenous nations. Anything innovative that Māori visionaries fought for, that raised the hackles of “tangata turituri warawara” (the blah-blah-blah brigade), that’s slammed as “separatist” or constituting “preferential treatment” — it’s inspiring other first nations peoples. Like the Ainu of Japan, who visited New Zealand recently. And Sámi of Northern Europe.
In March this year, Jorma Lehtola, the artistic director of Skábmagovat, came to the Māoriland Film Festival in Otaki. He was on a mission. Next year, the Sámi film festival will once again showcase Māori film — and Jorma is hoping that Taika Waititi, Oscar finalist and darling of the indigenous filmmaking set, will attend.
Skábmagovat is a far cry from Hollywood. There’s something truly surreal about sitting on reindeer skins in an amphitheatre built from snow, knocking back hot chocolate laced with rum (although it may well have been the other way around), checking out locals wrapped head-to-toe in seal fur, and watching footage of New Zealand’s tropical native bush projected onto a giant snow screen.
When the festival is on, Lake Inari is frozen solid. Jorma arranged for Toby and me to take a sleigh ride across it. Our guide looked like an extra from The Revenant, he was wrapped up in so many clothes. Mountain Man patted me down like an LA cop, grunted, threw a thick woollen jersey over the top of my heavily padded jumpsuit and tucked me into the sleigh under blankets and fur skins. So far, so good.
A Norwegian film crew jumped on board, thinking it might be a laugh to film Polynesians in the Arctic.
Off we went. Real fast. The wind chill took temperatures to around 20-below. As the Ski-doo snowmobile cut through the ice, clods of snow flew towards us. It was noisy. Freezing. My fingers, trussed into two sets of gloves, were stiffening up. The Norwegian director noticed. “Gloves are useless, you need to move your fingers,” she yelled. “Take my seal fur mittens.” I did, with no thought for any endangered species.
Mountain Man stopped the Ski-doo and lumbered off to build a fire in the snow. Who knew you could do that? He then pointed to a historic church 20 minutes away as a potential destination. I had visions of my sisters baking lakeside at Waitetoko, in eyeshot of a nice, warm volcano. “No,” I begged Toby, before he could nod. “Home. Now.”
We sped back across the ice. My hat flew off. It was like being scalped. Jesus, I thought. Māori and Sámi are, literally, poles apart. Yet, once I thawed out, we swapped yarns about whose people eat the weirdest kai. And I thought: “Yep. Dad and his brothers would have a bit in common with this lot.”
Although it’s the size of Ruatoria, Inari is the Sámi capital of Finland and home to the Sámi Parliament, which distributes funds to Sámi. Beneficiaries must identify as Sámi and be accepted as Sámi by the Sámi community. Jorma says there have been applications to the Sámi Parliament by opportunists who “claim a drop of Sámi blood from the 15th century, but have no history of involvement with Sámi.”
Recently, the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland overruled the Sámi Parliament by upholding the appeals of 92 applicants to be recognised as Sámi.
Traditionally, Sámi were semi-nomadic. Many followed the reindeer herds as they moved between winter and summer pastures across northern Europe. But over the last two centuries, borders went up and through the Sámi homelands. Sámi nations were split into Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish or Russian.
And while the Finns can’t explain how they ended up with 90 percent of the land (there’s no treaty), successive governments insist that Sámi must prove ownership to any remaining land. The only exception is an iwi known as Skolt Sámi. They possess a nine-metre scroll that dates back to 1601, in which Russian emperors confirm Sámi rights to their own pasture and fishing territories.
In 1986, Sámi declared: “We Sámi are one people, and the frontiers of states shall not break the unity of our people.” The Sámi flag is raised every year on February 6 — their national day. We have that in common, too. Jorma was the first person in Helsinki to display it outside his apartment. He dubbed our home the “Sámi embassy” because of the Sámi flag in our driveway.
Although Finland officially recognised Sámi as a people in 1995, it’s been heavily criticised by the United Nations and the European Union for not adopting the International Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (or ILO 169). Something it shares with New Zealand. Ratification would give Sámi a say about aggressive, unsustainable mining and logging projects on their traditional lands.
It’s not just their land that’s under threat. The Sámi worldview is based on shamanism. Yoik is a unique cultural and musical expression that represents an emotional bond between people, animals and nature. It was banned by the church and education system for 200 years.
My friend Mari Boine — an extraordinary singer whose music is inspired by yoik —is a Norwegian Sámi. She broke new ground by stamping Sámi pride into contemporary music and taking it onto famous stages around the world. When she played little Inari recently, the whole town turned out.
“When we compare ourselves to Norwegians,” says Mari, “we feel very different. But when we compare ourselves to other indigenous people around the world, we don’t feel so alienated.”
I get that. Music is my passport into other worlds, strange yet familiar. It’s been less and less about a looking through the window and more about discovering a mirror into our own. From the Amis (Taiwan) and Bundjalung (Australia) to the Lakhota (US) and clans of Scotland, Māori are part of a dynamic and powerful indigenous matrix that shares common values and beliefs. It’s within this beautiful parallel universe that an abundance of bold ideas, wisdom and vision are constantly exchanged and refined. It’s inside this space that mankind will find answers to save the planet.
Next year, we’ll be back in Inari for that Māori film festival. When we walk the red carpet, we’ll be wearing Ski-doo boots, not high heels. There will be no plunging necklines beneath the theatre bearing the Māori and Sámi independence flags. And, as we scour the sky for the dancing souls that are the Northern Lights, we will hold hands with our northernmost cousins.
And celebrate that, against all odds and despite everything, we are still here.