Well into the twentieth century, Christian missionaries and state-sponsored biologists meticulously documented Sami customs and dress, even as they tried to suppress it. The church and the state even conspired to unearth and desecrate Sami sacred sites and tombs, measuring their skulls and skeletons in search of evidence of an “uncivilized” proto-racial race.
More recently, the Sami have been portrayed in blockbuster films such as Klaus i Frozen 2, where they are usually secondary characters who help in the settlers’ missions. In these representations, the Sami are almost always historical, wearing traditional formal and nomadic costumes.
The real Sami identity is much more complex. To begin with, its traditional territory is divided by four colonial powers (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia), nine living indigenous languages, and four non-indigenous languages. Forced assimilation programs in those countries led to more divisions, between nomadic reindeer herders and Sami from “forests” or established villages, which were more aggressively stripped of their traditions.
When choosing a historic setting, Skábma: snowfall is able to allude to these impacts without fully representing them; there is, for example, a sinister French naturalist who has gone beyond his reception in the village of Áilu. But even depicting the historical Sami can be fraught with problems.
“Defining what is traditional and what is not is also reducing the image of Sáminess,” Outi Lati, a Sami game researcher and designer, wrote in an email to WIRED. Reindeer herding, traditional crafts and nature worship are part of Sami cultural heritage. But most Sami are Christians, many are unfamiliar with traditional crafts, and few would know what to do with a herd of reindeer. Writing down these traditional things might imply that these people are somehow less Sami.
This has left Sami artists like Auranen a delicate task. “There’s a fine line between the negative stereotypes and the stereotypes that are needed,” he said. “People do not know the Sami culture. They don’t know who we are. And in that sense, stereotypes are useful. “
“But … we’re fighting these stereotypes while owning them,” he said. “People expect us to be in this museum showcase, and they’re disappointed … that we’re not as exotic as they want us to be.”
But one of the advantages of having Sami people like Auranen driving the development of a game about Sami is that the creators are free to shape the design based on their perspectives. Auranen knows that he does not offer an exclusive version of Sáminess, but rather offers his own interpretation, drawn from his own experience of growth and discovery.
An intensive cultural heritage course
The central theme of Áilu’s journey is “loss and recovery,” Auranen said, and it is a theme that comes home. Auranen’s father was one of the “lost generation”, the Sami who grew up without access to their traditional language or culture. As a result, Auranen herself was deprived of this education. “All these little details never happened to me,” he said.