At the Well blog


Indigenous studies, say what?

Indigenous studies, which have emerged around the world in recent years – and subsequently in Finland – examine indigenous peoples from a global and multidisciplinary perspective. The discipline is based on the point of view and worlds of experience of indigenous peoples. Indigenous studies provide a comprehensive knowledge base on the research methods, languages and cultures, environmental philosophies, arts, history, and rights of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous studies are based on and use the indigenous peoples’ ways of knowing, examining what, for example, “knowledge”, “knowing”, or “learning” actually mean for indigenous peoples. Concepts and phenomena are examined with the aim of understanding them more critically. For instance, what is, or is there a so-called relationship with the environment? This is very crucial at the time when we talk about environmental conflicts, or indigenous peoples’ rights to to education and cultural heritage, or claims are made related to indigenous land issues. These are very comprehensive issues that cannot be separated from each another.

For many indigenous peoples, various nonhuman and human actors are central in social relationships in which people are only one of the participants. Therefore, reality can also be understood as relational, in which case, the environment and people cannot be separated. People are dependent on many actors and elements – such as water, air, wind or plants and animals, which are an important part of the history, present, and future.

Indigenous studies start out by understanding at the local level, delving into issues from a communal perspective, and the community may comprise diverse agencies.

Indigenous peoples’ own experiences have often been ignored in science. That is why research methodologies and research ethics are given greater consideration in indigenous studies. The discipline has demonstrated the power of the processes of colonisation and essentialism in science. This has contributed to the fact that different forms of knowledge and indigenous ways of knowing have gradually been accepted within the scope of legitimate knowledge.

Understanding the languages and concepts of indigenous peoples is fundamental in indigenous studies. At the same time, the discipline acknowledges that there are many indigenous peoples and histories, which is why it is important not to generalise when talking about indigenous peoples. Even the Sami people are not one homogeneous group but consist of various Sami groups. Moreover, many members of the world’s indigenous peoples have lost their language, but although this has often diminished their opportunities to have a voice in relation to the state, this does not prevent them from telling their story. Indigenous studies are based on a comparative research approach.

Shared colonialism, experiences of assimilation and suppression, are what the world’s indigenous peoples have in common. Their rights not only to land, but also to language, and culture, are still being violated. Around the world, 370 million people in more than 70 different countries identify themselves as members of an indigenous people. In addition, it should be emphasised that, according to estimates, indigenous languages constitute approximately 80% of the world’s languages, whereas the share of indigenous peoples only accounts for a few percent of the world’s population. Nevertheless, the languages of indigenous peoples are among the most endangered languages in the world.

Most of indigenous people inhabit areas that are very rich in biodiversity. Such areas include, for example, the Arctic region, which is home to a total of more than 40 indigenous peoples. These communities have detailed information on specific places and regions that most outside researchers are unable to obtain. Such information also represents knowledge and experience acquired over a long period of time, which is very important when talking about changes in climate and the environment, in particular. These areas are fragile and changes there irreversible, and that is why their inhabitants are worth listening to. Environmental changes are also irreversible for the culture, language, and knowledge of these areas.

Research is needed to demonstrate what has happened and is currently happening in the areas of indigenous peoples and to indigenous peoples, and what they think. In the Arctic region, for example, it is the objective of many countries to increase mining, construction of the road and railway network, oil extraction, and to generally expand the development of energy production and infrastructure, which are now spreading to increase economic growth. Many operators would like to enter the Sápmi region, for example.

In the great national narratives, the agency and difference of indigenous peoples are rarely accepted or acknowledged. The knowledge of many Finns regarding indigenous peoples, including the Sámi, is still very poor, or there is a tendency to classify them under one strict category.

More extensive resources and efforts are still required: researchers and experts trained in indigenous studies to provide the perspective of indigenous peoples and to defend their interests in various sectors: for example, as teachers, journalists, in museums, and working at ministries where they can participate in the planning, enactment and implementation of health services, educational affairs, and the use of land and natural resources.


Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen

Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen is the first assistant professor in indigenous studies in Finland.

Photo: Mika Federley