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500-Year-Old Skolt Sami Document Joins 'Memory of the World'

Suenjel Skolt Sámi community archive
The earliest written agreement between imperial Russia and the Skolt Sámi dates back to the beginning of the 17th century. (Photo: Courtesy of UNESCO)

UNESCO places the Suenjel Skolt Sámi community archive onto an important register of world heritage.

The oldest surviving document affirming the fishing and reindeer herding rights of the indigenous Skolt Sámi of the European Arctic was forged with tsarist Russia during the era of Boris Godunov’s reign. The most recent was made around the time of the American Revolution.

Now the entire archive is part of an international registry of documents vital to human history.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, announced on Thursday night that it would include the documents, formally known as the Suenjel Skolt Sámi community archive, among 340 others on the Memory of the World Register.

Tiina Sanila-Aikio, the president of Finland’s Sámi Parliament, said that UNESCO’s decision gave her a feeling of hope for the future of her people. “It proves we have rights, we haven’t given that up, and no one [is] taking that away from us,” Sanila-Aikio said.

Agreements on land and water rights between the Skolt Sámi and imperial Russia date back to the time of Ivan the Terrible, the mid-1500s, according to the nomination form submitted to UNESCO. But written documents recording those agreements prior to 1601 were destroyed in 1859, during the war between Russia and Sweden. The latest document in the archive was created in 1775.

Skolt Sámi hid the document in the turbulent years immediately prior to World War II, when it was moved further south, ending up in the national archives in Helsinki in 1994.

“The Suenjel Skolt Sámi community archive is the greatest treasury of the Sámi population’s documented cultural history,” the Arkistolaitos-Finnish National Archive Service, stated in a news release. “The selection means that the archive will now join the likes of the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

The archive will be permanently housed in the Sámi Archive, located at the Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos in Inari, Finland.

Earlier in the day, in the Skolt Sámi village of Sevettijärvi, Sanila-Aikio had joined village chief Tanja Sanila and dozens of local community members in ceremonies to welcome the scroll, which they call the “Gramota,” after the imperial Russian government —back to its homeland following an intensive restoration and conservation process. 

The gathering had also hoped to celebrate its inclusion in the Memory of the World Register, after three years of intense efforts on the application to UNESCO by many Sámi organizations as well as the Finnish NGO Snowchange.

But instead the room listened quietly as, over a live internet video stream, the director and chief archivist of Arkistolaitos said they might not know UNESCO’s decision until the following week.

The reason, Jussi Nuorteva told the crowd, was that other documents nominated for the Memory of the World Register during the same period had proven so politically divisive—including the Liberation Graphics Collection of Palestine Posters, as well as documents related to atrocities committed by Japanese troops in China during World War II—that the entire slate of candidates had gone to UNESCO’s executive committee in Paris for a final determination.

“I’m the head of the international committee to decide it, but I can’t tell you more,” Nuorteva had told the gathering, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. “It’s an exceptional moment in time. UNESCO has never faced this sort of moment before.”

Calling the Gramota “the oldest indigenous materials in the history of the world,” Nuorteva said that the historical agreements between the Skolt Sámi and tsarist Russia make clear that the land, water, and human rights of indigenous peoples of the Arctic have been internationally recognized for centuries.

Later that evening, word that the Gramota would become part of the Memory of the World Register sped through Sevettijärvi via social media and mobile phone.

The UNESCO recognition for the Gramota is a bright spot amidst tense relations with the Finnish government that have many Sámi in Finland fearing for their cultural survival.

During an April meeting of indigenous peoples at the United Nations in New York City, Sanila-Aikio charged the Finnish government with making empty promises to uphold the rights of the nation’s roughly 6,000 Sámi citizens. Her speech came shortly after Finland delayed ratification of the U.N.’s International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169, a binding international human rights agreement.

Most recently, in early October the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland ruled that 93 individuals must be included on the Sámi register, even though the Sámi Parliament had rejected their applications for Sámi status. The move allowed the 93 to vote in recent Sámi Parliament elections, outraging Sámi political leaders and communities.