A few kilometres off the main road, deep in an evergreen forest, an all-Sámi language broadcast station has just switched off air for the morning.
The fevered buzz in Yle Sápmi dies down for a couple hours as reporters prepare for the afternoon and evening shows, scouring the indigenous communities for news to share with the rest of Finland.
Every year the station’s place in the Finnish news market grows a little stronger as more programs and resources are invested in promoting indigenous culture over the airwaves.
“I could be in Brazil or China, but I am here and I am very happy,” says Pirita Näkkäläjärvi, Head of Yle Sápmi.
The business major, turned London investment banker, turned outspoken Sámi politician is now the somewhat unlikely head of Finland’s largest indigenous broadcast corporation.
She got the job two years ago and, since taking over, has worked hard to push the station grow by adding innovative programs and technology, including a popular youth show and an entire TV studio.
“The TV news was a crazy idea I got,” says Näkkäläjärvi, recalling how she sat watching the news in Helsinki when it occurred to her that the same opportunity could be possible for Yle Sápmi. “In Helsinki they thought, ‘you need to have a studio in Inari.’ I never dreamed of that. A year after my crazy idea we had a TV studio.”
Officially, there are just 3,000 people who speak any of the three Sámi languages in Finland, although there are many more with some understanding of them. As is the case with minority and indigenous languages around the world, the number is constantly falling as older speakers die and take a small part of the language with them.
But as the language wanes with the older generation, some younger Sámi speakers are starting to return to their indigenous roots. A new youth talk show conducted in two Sámi languages simultaneously is giving the ancient tongues a modern and popular twist.
“I was really determined to bring something for the younger people. We have such a vibrant young Sámi culture,” says Näkkäläjärvi about the hit radio program.
Connecting indigenous people of all ages with the rest of Finland is a key mandate for Yle. Giving a voice to the Sámi people helps the dialogue on both sides of the cultural divide.
“Most news in Finland are broadcast in Finnish, by Finns,” says Näkkäläjärvi. “Our job is to open up the Sámi perspective.”
That Sámi focus has already landed Näkkäläjärvi and her station in some controversy. Covering a proposal for a new Sámi parliament act, the station was criticized for leaning too heavily to one side. The same thing happened again when the station covered a new International Labour Organization convention.
“There are cards and letters on the wall saying nice things, but we also get feedback that we are biased and pushing someone’s political agenda.”
Despite her former life in politics, Näkkäläjärvi insists that her own views do not influence the station’s coverage.
True to its mission, the station has dramatically increased the amount of minority language content.
“We used to do about two TV stories per year in Skolt Sámi,” she says. Since December 2013, the station has already run 15 stories in the rare language, which has just 400 official speakers.
It’s these types of specialized broadcasts that help connect the indigenous communities with Finland as a whole and raise the profile of the Sápmi region. Every year there is a discussion in Finland about funding for indigenous peoples, but in the eyes of many in the communities, the interest in supporting Sámi culture is still more talk than action.
“I don’t have time to wait for these government programs that are never going to happen,” says Näkkäläjärvi about her own ambitious programs.
“There is a lot of work to open up the culture [to the mainstream]. There is a lot of width and depth that we still haven’t shown.”