Shared Bond: Festival’s films depict native cultures’ civil rights struggles
HOUGHTON — Thousands of miles separate the Ojibwe and the Sami, but both know the struggle for rights and respect from the dominant cultures surrounding them.
They were the subject of a panel discussion Saturday with Jerry Jondreau of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and Jim Kurtti, Hilary Virtanen and Joanna Chopp of Finlandia University. The panel followed a screening of two films at the 41 North Film Festival at Michigan Technological University Saturday.
The first, a short called “Ogichidaa,” told the story of William “Boyzie” Jondreau, a commercial fisherman who was arrested in 1965 for being in possession of four fish out of season. After a lengthy court battle, the state Supreme Court ruled in 1971 he had a protected right to hunt, fish and gather on ceded lands under the Chippewa Indian Treaty of 1854.
“That treaty, according to the U.S. Constitution, is the supreme law of the land,” said Jerry Jondreau, William Jondreau’s grandson. “Our people were aware of that when they signed that treaty. There’s a lot of misconception that we were simple people. That’s not the case. We were fully aware of these rights that we had, and still have.”
Though the law is recognizing their rights, he said, their value is being depleted by pollution, he said. He pointed to fish consumption advisories for toxins such as mercury.
“Those resources we exchanged the land for are simply declining,” he said. “When we still exercise our rights and practice our culture, we have to be selective about doing it now, because we’re actively poisoning ourselves.”
The main feature, “Sami Blood,” was a narrative about a Sami girl in the 1930s who is sent to a state-run boarding school in Sweden. Like the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in America, the teachers sought to suppress demonstrations of the students’ culture. In one scene, a student is hit by a teacher for speaking her native language in class.
Virtanen, the assistant professor of Finnish Nordic studies at Finlandia, said the films spoke to her about personal sovereignty and group-based rights. The film was set in the 1930s, an era where neither rights nor sovereignty were respected for the Sami, a people indigenous to the northern parts of Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Russia.
Swedish policy at the time was “a Sami shall be a Sami.” Another aspect seen in the film was preserving racial hierarchy through eugenics. One scene showed scientists measuring the insides of students’ mouths and forcing them to strip for photographs.
“We can’t pretend that cultures don’t interact and that we can’t be a part of it,” she said. “We can’t pretend that the mining isn’t messing with people now catching fish, and we can’t pretend that somebody should have to choose between being Sami and being Swedish.”
Chopp, an archivist at the Finnish-American Heritage Center, said like Virtanen she found the film hard to watch. She has Sami heritage, which she can trace back to the late 1500s. However, many of her relatives back in Finland have lost the language, and they are not legally recognized as Sami. The assimilation of Sami makes her job harder as an archivist, she said.
She and Kurtti, who also has Sami heritage, were both wearing gakti, traditional Sami garb that denotes a person’s marital status or where they’re from. Hers was less complete than Kurtti’s, missing leg bands and a shawl.
“It’s hard to get people in Finland to explain how it should be done, and you don’t want to get it wrong, because you run into the gakti police,” she said. “You want to still sort of have that heritage, that connection.”
Thousands of people in Finlandia have a non-identified Sami connection, said Kurtti, director of the Finnish-American Heritage Center. Recently, the Finnish government tried to recognize more Sami, which met with pushback from the people who met the current definition.
“It’s a very complex issue, and it has do with a bit of regionalism, and tribalism and political power,” he said.
A similar blood policy exists for Native Americans, Jondreau said in the later question-and-answer session.
“I’m not in favor of that policy, because it’s a mathematical certainty that we will cease to exist,” he said.