• Aurora Grion

Listening to minority women in Finland: Mónica Suárez Galindo & her visual tale about Sámi women

International Women’s Day is all about celebrating women and their achievements. But how about women belonging to minorities in Finland?

Credits: Mónica Suárez Galindo

This year, in support of International Women’s Day, +Collective decided to celebrate women belonging to minorities in Finland, their resilience and endless strength.

We’re doing this through the visual tale of Mónica Suárez Galindo, a very talented photographer originally from Peru. Before moving to Finland two years ago, Mónica has been working with the United Nations Development Program in Peru and with the European Commission. Most of her photographic projects have been focused on listening to vulnerable communities all around the world and faithfully telling their stories.

As a collective of diverse individuals supporting inclusion in Finland, +Collective’s activities aim to create a space for reflection on topics such as human rights, gender-based violence, and inclusion.

We tell Finnish stories through our experience as foreigners, and Mónica’s project is very peculiar in this sense. She’s a woman coming from a country rich in cultural diversity and who decided to join forces with strong Sámi women, in order to tell their story and inform the Finnish public about the obstacles these indigenous communities are trying to overcome.

Through her two projects, “Underneath Us” (2017) and “Belonging” (2020), Mónica tells the story of Sámi women and their engagement in preserving the identity of their communities.

“Underneath Us”: asking questions about Sámi culture and finding answers

Mónica’s curiosity started back in 2017 when she was asking general questions about Sámi culture to her Finnish husband. By talking with her he realized that, although being usually a well-informed person, he couldn’t provide her with detailed answers. Therefore, they started researching and digging deeper into this, trying to understand why he wasn’t able to give more detailed information on the subject. They eventually found quite interesting insights that contribute to creating discrimination in Finnish society and politics, such as the general lack of information in the Finnish education system when it comes to learning about Finland’s very own indigenous minority, the Sámi community.

As a result, they decided to conduct a research in Northern Lapland, asking questions to the Sámi people themselves. And this is how their first project, “Underneath Us” (2017), was created.

Credits: Mónica Suárez Galindo

Upon sending an email to the Siida Museum in Inari, they got in contact with Anni Guttorm and Päivi Magga, Sámi women working at the museum. After carefully reviewing Mónica’s and Johannes’ project, its purpose and perspective, Anni and Päivi decided to join and open up about their traditions as well as the discriminations they are subjected to as an indigenous minority in Finland.

The main reason behind their cautious approach is that they’ve had bad experiences over time; what they want to highlight is that there is much more to tell hidden under their visually stunning garments: thus the title of the project, “Underneath Us”.

“I think that it is very important as a photographer to let these minorities express themselves and let their voices be heard through your camera, rather than using them to express your own voice and point of view. Unfortunately, they had some bad experiences in this sense and they are thus much more careful before entrusting someone with their culture.”

Credits: Mónica Suárez Galindo

“Belonging”: Sámi women’s resilience in preserving and passing their culture onto future generations

While at Anni’s for the realization of “Underneath Us”, Mónica got to know Sara Wesslin, a young Sámi journalist who works hard to keep alive the Skolt Sámi (Eastern Sámi language with about 400 speakers in Finland and Russia, ed.) in her community, and they kept in touch in the following years.

In October 2019, Sara was featured in the BBC's 100 Women as one of the "inspiring and influential women" of the year. Shortly after, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Following the first few months of uncertainty, Mónica felt like it was the right time to get a deeper insight into Sara’s story and purpose. For this reason, Mónica and Johannes contacted her and proposed to develop a new project about minority languages and, in particular, about the importance of the preservation of the Skolt Sámi: “Belonging” (2020).

Credits: Mónica Suárez Galindo

In September 2020, Mónica and Johannes traveled once again all the way up to Northern Lapland, in the area around the towns of Inari and Ivalo. There they met Sara, who introduced the two other very inspiring Sámi women who took part in the “Belonging” project: Saara-Maria Salonen (former reporter and presenter for the biggest Sámi news media in Finland, Yle Sápmi) and Sunna Nousuniemi (filmmaker, activist, and former film festival director from Inari). The main topic of their interview was the relationship between language and identity, and how important it is to preserve the language in order to keep alive the whole Sámi community.

“What has clearly emerged from our interview is that yes, they are under a lot of stress. It is not only the weight of the past that they need to carry, but it’s also the weight of the future of their own culture, of preserving their language, and of passing this knowledge onto the next generations. And what is worst, is that they are usually left alone in this fight.”

Credits: Mónica Suárez Galindo

Women and indigenous minorities all over the world

In her two projects, Mónica gave voice to Sámi women: this happened by chance. Would she have made a choice, however, she would have picked to portray women, as she feels that “the strongest connection I’ve had as a photographer has always been with women” and this allows her to tell their stories in the most truthful way.

Mónica’s commitment in not breaking the pact of trust that unites her and these Sámi women emerges clearly from her words. She explains how important it was for her to enter almost tip-toeing the everyday reality of the Sámi communities to observe and listen, letting them tell their own story.

Coming from Peru (a country extremely rich in cultural and indigenous diversity) and having previously worked with indigenous communities in South America, Mónica has quite an interesting point of view on the topic. When asked if there are any common traits belonging to the indigenous populations all over the world, she says:

“The first common aspect that comes to mind is that indigenous people, unfortunately, are victims of discrimination. No matter if it’s a developed country or if it’s a country that is still on its way to development: it is the lack of information that drives ignorance, and ignorance drives negative behavior against indigenous communities.”

Another common trait that Mónica highlights is that indigenous communities all over the world always protect nature and the land. Their relationship is indeed much stronger:

“In “Belonging”, one of the questions I asked to Saara-Maria was if she feels that the relationship of Finnish people to nature and that of Sámi people to nature differs in some way. She actually gave an interesting theory: she said that, in her opinion, Sámi people do have a deeper connection to nature and it is because historically they weren’t a sedentary community. The fact that they were walking and experiencing the seasons following the reindeers (as an important source of food and life in general) created in their culture a much stronger connection to nature, making them extremely respectful towards it.

This desire of protecting and fighting for the land is shared by the indigenous people I had the chance to visit in the Amazon, too: everything they possess comes from nature. Someone might object that they consume and exploit nature…They do use it, but in the most respectful and sustainable way!”

Mónica also recalls when Sunna mentioned that, when she traveled to Australia and met some people belonging to the Maori indigenous community, they had so many things in common that she felt like she belonged there with them. “I’m sure that if you connect indigenous communities from all over the world through a screen they will all feel like a big family, that truly and spontaneously cares about protecting the environment”, says Mónica.

Credits: Mónica Suárez Galindo

Inspiration and sharing pain

Mónica tells that being in touch with these Sámi women, listening to them, and understanding their pain has been incredibly inspiring and appalling at the same time. The resilience and the strength they have shown in protecting their cultural identity is absolutely enviable, but the treatment these people have received and continue to receive from the Finnish state is extremely unfair.

“Every time I feel inspired by their strength, but when I think about how painful it must have been for them going through all that… It’s just so distressing. The level of discrimination and unfair treatment that the Sámi community had to go through (up to this day!) is just out of this world. I haven’t felt so much pain with any other communities I’ve met during my photo reportages as I did with the Sámi one, I have to be honest.”

The difference between the treatment of Sámi communities in Finland and that reserved to other indigenous minorities around the world differs in a very simple aspect: the Finnish education system doesn’t provide its citizens with detailed information about them, which is something that on the contrary happens almost anywhere else in the world (e.g. Mónica talks about how the Peruvian system surely has issues, but informs its citizens about the intrinsic cultural diversity existing there).

The fact that in 2021 and in a developed Western country the Sámi communities still have to strenuously fight to be listened to and not just heard is quite shocking. This is indeed a very good starting point for common reflection and for admiration for what these women have achieved through their fights.

"We need more stable funds. And unfortunately, we need to fight for them so we can preserve our languages. Sámis are getting tired of this, we are doing a lot of free time work so we can preserve these languages for the next generations. But still, we need governmental help and unfortunately, we are not at the same table as the decision-makers." Sara Wesslin

Credits: Mónica Suárez Galindo

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