Water Prospecting Threatens Sami Sacred Site

In northern Finland, homeland of the Sami, water prospecting threatens a natural spring and an ancient sacred site called Suttesája.

Since May 2001, the municipality of Ohcejohka/Utsjoki (Finland’s northernmost municipality, in the heart of the Sami home region) has planned to bottle and sell the spring’s water on the world market. The area surrounding the spring has been of spiritual importance to the Sami for generations and is recorded in oral tradition. It is in the vicinity of the mountain Ailegas (“sacred mountain”) and its name signifies a stream or a spring that does not freeze even in the winter. For the Sami, Suttesája has been a site of cleansing and healing for generations. Near the spring, there is also an ancient sacrificial site where the local Sami have expressed their respect and gratitude to the Sami gods and spirits governing the natural world. Generally, when something is sacred, whether it is an object, site, or person, then it must be placed apart from everyday things or places so that its special significance can be recognized, and rules regarding it obeyed. Clearly, any commercial activities would interfere in Suttesája’s sacredness.

The municipality of Utsjoki has not conducted a proper consultation about the prospecting plans with local people. Only after being pressured by concerned Sami did it agree to conduct a “cultural study” of the Suttesája region. The municipality proceeded to hire a supporter of water prospecting to lead the study, demonstrating its unwillingness to address people’s concerns.

The municipality has also ignored demands made by six local Sami based on constitutional articles that recognize the Sami and Article 27 of the International Convention on Civic and Political Rights, which protects individuals’ rights to practice their cultures. Sami who oppose the project have repeatedly referred to the United Nations Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Article 13 of the International Convention which articulates indigenous peoples’ “right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites.”

The Suttesája area is also marked as a heritage site of cultural and historical significance in the registry of the Finnish National Board of Antiquities. In a recent statement, the National Board of Antiquities called for a thorough environmental impact assessment which would also consider the cultural values of the region taking into account the views of the indigenous Sami population. According to the statement, the project needs to be assessed in terms of the principles of the indigenous world-view and UNESCO World Heritage guidelines. Furthermore, the Finnish Sami Parliament has requested a detailed environmental and cultural impact assessment and the Cultural Committee of the Sami Parliament has stated that Suttesája and its surrounding area is important for the local Sami and must be protected utilizing all possible means. An international petition with more than 500 names calling for a halt to the municipality’s plans was recently delivered to the Utsjoki town hall.

Issues over land rights and title remain unresolved throughout the Sami region. The spring flows into the Deatnu (Tana) river, which is the finest Atlantic salmon river in Europe and has been the lifeblood of the Sami regions for millenia. Considerable ecological concerns exist that would best be addressed by a thorough long-term environmental assessment. But the municipality of Utsjoki is not legally entitled to make decisions about the use of the region’s land base.

A great deal of Sami spiritual knowledge has been lost or destroyed by colonization and forced Christianization over several generations. Only remnants of this knowledge remain today, and many Sami now see traditional Sami spirituality, linked with living in a respectful relationship with land, as insignificant and shameful. It is crucial to raise awareness about Suttesája and Sami spiritual values and to protect Suttesája for future generations.
Rauna Kuokkanen is a Sami from the Deatnu river. She is completing her doctorate on indigenous peoples, decolonization, and academia at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. She has a master’s degree in Sami language and literature from the University of Oulu (Finland) and in comparative literature from UBC.
Reference and further reading
Hubert, J. (1994). Sacred Beliefs and Beliefs of Sacredness. In Sacred Sites, Sacred Places. Carmichael, D.L., Hubert, J., Reeves, B. & Schanche, A. Eds. London & New York: Routledge. P 11.

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