Terhi Vuojala-Magga and Stephan Dudeck breaching the image of the North as a home and as a field

Stephan Dudeck visited Terhi Vuojala-Magga in the Inari region of Finnish Sápmi (Sámi home area) two times during this year.  The first visit was in January in Kuttura – a Sami reindeer herders´ forest village of six houses in the upper stream of Ivalo River – and the second visit was at the beginning of April, both in Ivalo and Kuttura.

I met Stephan for the first time last autumn at Arctic Centre when I was talking about my work in MISTRA project of The Arctic Lessons for Sweden. During our discussions we decided that Stephan will come to visit me in the Far North.

Spring is the high ice fishing season in Lapland. Here Terhi on the Ivalo River.

During his first visit we had some interesting talks about anthropology and we did some polar night ice fishing of burbot with a spring hook fish trap. It was rather cold, but still Stephan wanted to test his clothing for his journey to the Nenets region in Russia and he did stay on ice doing some ice-fishing too. I noticed that he is not afraid of being in the cold.

An artist performing for Sámi children at the new Sajos in Inari

Stephans’s second visit was in the middle of the best spring time here in the north. It was on occasion of the conference “Tales from the North” in the new build Sajos building in Ivalo, which also hosts the Sámi Parliament. Our main motivation to go there was the marvelous and inspiring presentation of Prof. Tim Ingold  from Aberdeen. Afterwards we had a nice dinner at home in Ivalo with him and his wife Anna Ingold.  Afterwards we socialized with the locals in our local pub with dance and karaoke.  Though Stephan did not sing any karaoke songs, even we all wanted to hear it, he did learn to dance Finnish tango. And he did this so well that people liked it (as I heard about it afterwards).  I myself learned to drink wine instead of beer or koskenkorva (Vodka). On Saturday we took part in an ice fishing competition in Riutula together with my friends. The competition was a success in the nice warm sunshine and we all got some fish though not enough to win the competition.

Ice fishing competition in Riutula 14th of April 2012. Grilled sausages are an obligatory companion at such events in Finnish Lapland.

Once back in Kuttura, which was Stephan’s second visit to this forest village, we dived into intensive discussions about anthropology, places and people.  We were talking about intimacy and privacy – in two ways.  I was able to understand what it means when an anthropologist lives with the people – as Stephan did in my home (though I’m an anthropologist too).

Terhi Voula-Magga's home in Kuttura

However, this is not a one sided issue.  Anthropologists have their own privacy and intimacy too.  In both ways there are options and limits and I suppose these dimensions have to be found out each time once people meet. It’s a question how much you reveal of yourself and how much people learn to trust you.

The second discussion was about our emotions and sensitivity – a quite important topic. We agreed that most people here are very sensitive; we share the quietness – that is very common for northerners. It means that the tacit communication in the environment with the people or even in absence of the people has meanings and messages. An important point during our discussions was: never louse your sense of humor – whatever happens we should not stop to laugh at ourselves.

Stephan did skiing on the frozen Ivalo River. It was an extraordinary sensory experience while communicating with the northern landscape.

In short we learned that the eyes can see until there is nothing to see, and the ears can hear even there is nothing to listen to, and we can understand when we cease to understand at all.

Conference in Riga “Oral History – Dialogue with Society”

I’m just back from the conference “Oral History – Dialogue with Society” in Riga that took place from 29th till 30th March. The conference was hosted by the Latvian National Oral History Centre of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the University of Latvia in cooperation with the Association of Oral History Researchers of Latvia Dzīvesstāsts” (Life Story) and the department of History at Stockholm University.

View from my window in the old city of Riga

I presented the ORHELIA project there and got some new and useful impressions what’s going on in oral history research at the moment. One of the big advantages of the oral history research is that it’s by nature interdisciplinary, but this is at the same time one of the main obstacles. Historians, anthropologists, museum practitioners, political activists, artists, sociologists, folklorists and social workers are working with oral history. There seems to be no common opinion what oral history is first of all. Is it a research method, a research result, a historical source, a folklore genre or social activism or all of that? Have scientist have to take an objective, neutral position towards oral history, should the stay detached or engage politically or even emotionally as much as possible? The involvement of so different disciplines and people with their own standpoints make it almost impossible to come to final answers to these questions.

Keynot speeches in the Aula of the University
Keynot speeches in the Aula of the University

History is a contested field and oral history helps to bring the perspective of people that where silenced in historical sources of official discourses back into science and then into the public. That was one of the reasons why oral history became so prominent in Latvia 20 years after soviet ideology lost its power here.

A visit in the “Museum of the Occupation of Latvia” let me realize another limit of the oral history approach. A part of the exhibition presents the history of the extermination of around 70 000 Jews in Latvia during the German occupation (90% of the Jewish population in Latvia and around 5% of the population Latvia had at that time). There occur moments in history when practically nobody is left to transmit the oral history of the people anymore! The exhibition lacks material about the participation of Latvians in the Holocaust because it tries first of all to present Latvian suffering and resistance under foreign occupation. As I learned during the conference Latvian collective memory is still deeply divided along the old front line of the Second World War and the search of the “right heroes” of the war.

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

I can summarise here only the themes that came up during the conference that resonate problems we face in the ORHELIA project.

Vieda Skultans, an anthropologist from the University of Bristol, emphasised in her presentation the personal involvement of the researcher in the production of the telling of oral history itself. The shared authorship and authority between the storyteller, the community he belongs to and the researcher was touched in several of the presentations. Oral history becomes understandable only if one is able to understand the life context of the story teller and the life context of the listeners to whom the story is told, including the researcher her-/himself. The term history suggests in its folk etymology that it is always his-story, the story of somebody. But also the real etymology of the word history reveals an origin that is linked to the process of knowledge transmission. Greek “historia” means learning or knowing by inquiry.  Several presentations during the conference mentioned the importance of the anthropological method of participant observation. Becoming part of a social interaction allows for a contextual understanding of oral history as a form of communication.

Riga was for a long time reluctant to establish a university. The main building is the former Polytechnikum.

What I missed during the conference nevertheless was a discussion of the “multivocality” or polyphony of the voices that speak through a story. I believe the interviewing and research process must even facilitate this multivocality because it is easily silenced by the official discourse. The concept of multivocality comes from the Russian philosopher Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich Bakhtin who wrote that Dostoyevsky’s novel “is constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousnesses as objects into itself, but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other” (Bakhtin 1984, 18). The same could be said about the oral stories that are told often in a non-linear way containing different interwoven and sometimes even contradictory accounts of historical events.

In some of the presentations during the conference I observed certain blindness towards overarching power structures the performances of oral history are embedded in. Often it seems as if stories emerge only out of the single memory of the storyteller who communicates with the single personality of the researcher. But our experience is that stories are always linked to recognition, respect and legitimation or want to question them. They try to legitimise the claims and aspirations or the identity of the storyteller her-/himself but also of overarching collectives and institutions the storyteller is embedded in. Which symbolic capital is at stake in oral history for the story teller and her/his community? Oral history research remains somewhat naïve without knowledge and analysis of the configurations of political power oral history is embedded in at the micro-level of the local community as well as at the macro-level of society.

Visual material and objects are crucial not only for the representation of oral history but also for remembering and story telling in general.

The conference title already suggested that its focus will be on questions of public presentation and dissemination of oral history research. I listen to some very interesting presentations about new forms of museum exhibitions involving oral history like for instance Candice Lau (United Kingdom) “Accessing Estonian Memories: the ‘Memories Passed’ Exhibition”. It opens up another huge field for analysis with practical consequences for our research. It is obvious that already the recording of stories detach them from the original context of performance. Every representation of oral history includes the process of re-contextualisation of the stories.  I believe that scientists have to enter a dialogue with professionals in media and museums to work on appropriate forms for the presentation of oral history that give power to the voice of the people we record.

Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Ed. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.