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Why an indigenous fancy dress gaffe by Norway’s finance minister was no laughing matter

The Sami Parliament (Sámediggi) By Illustratedjc via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Why an indigenous fancy dress gaffe by Norway’s finance minister was no laughing matter

Norway’s finance minister has caused a storm by her choice of outfit for a ministerial fancy dress party. On October 13, Siv Jensen posted a photo of herself on Instagram, showing off her costume: a Native American.

The party’s theme, the Wild West, was undoubtedly ill-advised from the outset. But choosing to dress up as a stereotype of peoples that have been stigmatised, ridiculed, assimilated and murdered is even more so. Not only is Jensen a public figure – she is a politician in a country with its own indigenous population, the Sami.

Jensen is leader of Norway’s Progress Party, or Fremskrittspartiet, currently in coalition government with the Conservative Party, Høyre. The Progress Party is known for its right-wing and populist policies, in particular when it comes to immigration. Moreover, it is a party that has advocated for the dismantlement of the Sami Parliament, an elected institution representing the people’s political and cultural rights. In 2012, Jensen stood on the podium of the Sami Parliament to declare that she would like to see it shut down – and adding that the building would make a beautiful museum. Her party argues that it is an institution that hinders industrialisation, such as resource extraction in North Norway.

The Sami Parliament was opened in 1989, after decades of “Norwegianisation” of the Sami – which included forced displacement and children put in boarding schools. It also involved suppression of the minority’s languages, traditions, and beliefs. Although many Sami today live in Norway’s capital Oslo, primarily the northern half of the country is considered part of Sápmi – or the Sami homelands. But the Sami people span across four nation-states: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Historically, this has posed a range of problems, such as double- or triple-taxation, families split on either side of a border, and more recently, on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Today, the Sami people in Norway have recognised rights as an indigenous people. In 2005 a historical land-use agreement, the Finnmark Act, established that roughly 95% of land in the Norwegian county of Finnmark belongs to its inhabitants, who are represented by an equal number of county- and Sami-elected members in the Finnmark Estate.

The transnational Sami Council is to be “consulted” on all matters discussed at the Arctic Council, made up of eight states with territories north of the Arctic Circle: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark/Greenland, Iceland, Russia, the US, and Canada. There is widespread recognition of the importance of indigenous peoples’ inclusion in Arctic politics, something I found while researching the views of politicians and civil servants about their country’s “Arctic identities”. But the right to vote and veto lies with the eight member states. In other words, consultation or not, final decision-making on Arctic matters remain with the eight states’ representatives.

Therefore, minority inclusion in the Arctic context may implicitly require the Sami to adhere to political representation that mirrors and fits that of the majority. Power relations remain asymmetrical, whether dressed up in feathers and frills or not.

Cultural appropriation is never funny

When Jensen posed in her braided wig, headband and moccasins on the steps of the Ministry of Finance, the issue ran much deeper than an ill-chosen costume. It reached back to Norway’s own dark history and touched on present-day politics of rights to self-determination, cultural heritage, and difference.

Christina Henriksen, a member of the Sami Council, pointed this out when the Instagram photo appeared. She argued that such dressing up ridicules, stereotypes and sexualises populations that are very much present and alive. To the Progress Party spokesperson who brushed off the whole issue as showing a lack of humour, Henriksen responded that cultural appropriation is not and should not be considered funny.

What makes the recent debate particularly disheartening is the ferocity expressed by members of Norway’s non-indigenous majority in response to Sami concerns. A couple of Sami representatives criticised the reduction of indigenous cultures to cheap Halloween costumes. But their comments were far outweighed by accusations that they were taking themselves too seriously, and were too easily insulted .

Members of the majority argued that they were hard done by a minority for not being “allowed” to have fun and dress up as they wanted to. But this is a minority people that only a few years ago was not even able to wear their own national dress without being satirised, imitated and even spat on. Still Sami people experience higher levels of discrimination and bullying than non-Sami.

Following Jensen’s post, both commentators on social media and official political representatives suggested that if dressing up as a pirate is ok, why not a Native American? But there is hypocrisy inherent in this position – particularly considering that some Norwegian commentators have expressed outrage on occassions when a “non-Norwegian” dons a Norwegian national dress or waves another flag on the country’s Constitution Day, May 17.

In the end, the issue is not just about one fancy dress costume. In Jensen’s case her choice connected to deep concerns about the lack of respect felt by indigenous peoples around the world – both in the past and present. And that is no laughing matter.