Young People Talk About What It's Like Growing Up Indigenous
Every year indigenous kids from Scandinavia, Alaska and Canada get together at the Riddu Riddu Festival in Norway, to party and discuss cultural identity and prejudice.
All photos by Adam Alexander Johansson
This article originally appeared on VICE Sweden
From the 12th to the 16th of July 2017, hundreds of Northern indigenous people attended the 26th Riddu Riddu Festival in Sápmi, a region in northern Europe that stretches over Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The area is predominantly home to the Sami, Scandinavia's only officially recognised indigenous group.
The annual event took place for the first time in 1991, aiming to strengthen the Sami's sense of identity and culture, while giving different indigenous people from as far as Siberia and Alaska the chance to come together and share their experiences.
I first heard about the festival from a group of Sami I met last year at the Native American reservation Standing Rock. They had travelled there from Scandinavia to join the activists protesting the building of pipelines across areas they consider sacred. So this year, I decided to go to Riddu Riddu to see what it was like.
The festival kicked off on Thursday night with the Sami punk band Ondt Blod taking the stage. Aside from the music programme, Riddu Riddu offered a range of workshops and seminars on issues affecting northern indigenous populations.
I spoke with some people at the festival about what it's like growing up indigenous in a society that often forgets your community exists.
Jaaku Sörsensen, 22, Musician, Greenland
"Compared to many other countries with indigenous populations, we're lucky in Greenland. Our people, the Greenlandic Inuit, are actually in the majority and everyone still speaks the language. But if you want to go to university, you'll have to be able to speak Danish – that's the only language spoken there.
Because we're in the majority, we don't suffer the same kind of discrimination as many other indigenous groups, but we're affected in a different way. Ever since we were colonised in the 17th century, the Danish have occupied the majority of prominent positions in our country. And even today, it can still feel like you have to be Danish to get ahead in Greenland. Many young indigenous people don't have much hope for the future – they feel they'll never have a career, but will always be stuck in menial jobs.
Because of the lack of opportunities, many of my friends struggle with alcohol abuse. Some work as drug dealers to make some extra cash, others are in jail. But of course, there are also many who are doing really well. My goal after finishing my degree in Denmark is to move back to Greenland and try to be a role model for other indigenous kids. I want to show them that it's possible to succeed as an indigenous person."
Dávvet Bruun–Solbakk, 22, Queer Activist, Norway
"I grew up in Karasjok in Sápmi, where the Sami are in the majority and our language is a natural part of everyday life. But when I moved to Oslo, I suddenly had to start working hard to maintain my culture and language, and to meet other Sami people. I still meet Norwegians who say they don't know what a Sami is – we simply aren't taught anything in school about my culture.
I'm openly queer, and from the moment I was able to be honest about that, I've received nothing but support from the people close to me. But I think that's quite unique – I've heard of many queer Sami who've been physically assaulted, and many feel very isolated. Showing masculinity is very important for men in Sami culture, so being queer can be especially difficult. One time I was on a panel discussion where we talked about different taboos, and someone pointed at me and said that I was a taboo. That's why it's so important we keep educating people, just like we do here at the festival."
Maja Kristine Jåma, 24, Teacher and Reindeer Herder, Norway
"When my grandparents were young, being Sami was seen as something to be ashamed of, so they never spoke the language with my parents. My childhood was fine, but when I got older I realised that many people in Norway know very little about Sami culture.
We still practise a large part of our traditions. Being a reindeer herder is the biggest part of my identity as a Sami. Unfortunately, reindeer farming in my area is currently being threatened by the development of a big wind farm that's planned on one of the mountains where our reindeers graze. We've protested the plans, but they're going ahead with them anyway. I'm not against green energy, but I do want reindeer farming to continue. If this park actually gets built it would be a huge loss of grazing land for us, and young people who'd still be interested in reindeer farming might lose hope that there's a future in the tradition.
When these kinds of decisions are made, it feels like the world is turning against us. But we have to keep fighting for our culture, even though the odds are against us."
Majorie Tahbone, 28, Reindeer Herder, Alaska
"My Iñupiaq family in Alaska still lives by a lot of the old traditions – every spring we go out into the wilderness and live off seals and plants. My parents raised me to appreciate that way of life. While the area where I'm from is becoming more and more westernised, that has actually led to more people returning to our traditional lifestyle. But living like that is harder for young people whose parents haven't stuck to traditions as much as mine. I'm happy my parents taught me how to live in the wild and to collect food for winter.
Indigenous groups all over the world deal with issues of alcoholism, suicide and domestic violence within their community – due to the oppression and discrimination we've faced for generations. Donald Trump is basically opposed to everything we stand for, but he is an example of what the mentality towards us has been like for the last 200 years. Since he became president though, I find that more people in my community are willing to fight to preserve our identity, our legacy and our territories."
Akinasi Partridge, 21, Student, Canada
"Growing up with indigenous ancestry has always been very difficult for me. I'm subjected to racism every day – sometimes very serious verbal attacks. My brother and I were the only indigenous people in our school. People would ask us, 'Why do you look like that? Are you Mexican or Chinese?'. Many Canadians assume we're all just alcoholics on welfare.
I'm hopeful, though. Young indigenous people today are working hard to change the narrative – we're starting a dialogue about our place in society. Canada is celebrating 150 years as a nation in 2017, and earlier this year, indigenous activists occupied federal land to bring attention to the fact that Canada is a country founded on stolen lands – it should be considered 150 years of theft and personal trauma caused by colonisation. There was a genocide here, but that's not something we're taught in school – our history lessons just focus on the settlers. When my people are mentioned it's always in the context of the fur trade and how many people in the reservations are struggling with social issues. Nothing is said about the abuse we've suffered.
My grandparents were severely affected by the residential school system – where indigenous children were sent to assimilate into Canadian society. My grandfather lost the ability to speak our language. It's important for us to reclaim our culture and identity as Mohawk people, to learn about traditional ceremonies and art forms. It's really empowered me to reclaim what we've lost, to protest, to be an activist and to work for change for coming generations."
Scroll down for more photos from the 26th Riddu Riddu Festival.