Finno-Ugric Peoples and North American Indigenous Peoples at the Center of VEMU’s Fall Season

December 9, 2021

2021 was an important year for Estonia: the small town of Abja-Paluoja in Viljandi County has been chosen as this year’s Finno-Ugric Capital of Culture. Important events dedicated to the unique language and culture of these people are taking place throughout the year.

The year’s main event, the World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples, took place at the beginning of July at the Estonian National Museum in Tartu.

The relationship between Estonian and Finno-Ugric peoples is special: the University of Tartu has long been a centre for the research and teaching of Finno-Ugric languages and culture. The connection between Estonian, Finnish and Hungarians with FinnoUgric groups living in Russia is a unique example of collaboration, carried out through academic, cultural and political levels, and is based on solidarity and the desire to create and uphold the unity of FinnoUgric peoples.

There are universal similarities though also clear differences in the experiences of indigenous peoples around the world who have suffered under colonialism. How do we grapple with the devastating history of these (small) populations? How do we keep these languages, cultures and traditions from disappearing? Is it possible to revive them? What support is needed to do so? What can indigenous peoples do to determine their own destiny? What are some successful survival strategies? In the fall of 2021, the Museum of Estonians Abroad (VEMU) organized a series of events dedicated to discussing these topics and investigating the experiential commonalities and differences between the Finno-Ugric peoples and the indigenous peoples of North America.

This series of events began on September 25th with the Dr. Vello Soots Memorial Lecture, which was presented by Jaak Prozes from the NGO Fenno-Ugria. The topic was “Finno-Ugric People in the Russian Federation 2010-2021.” Historian, Prozes, has been associated with Finno-Ugric topics since the beginning of the 1990s belonging to a number of organizations as a leading member, the most well-known of which is the NGO Fenno-Ugria Organization. He has been the chair of the organization since 1993. His presentation was based on the World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples held this year and included a thorough overview as well as statistics regarding the gradual assimilation of FinnoUgric peoples in Russia in addition to their persistent battle against it.

The online conference that took place on October 7th was dedicated to the Finno-Ugric and North American Indigenous People. Speakers included Merli Tamtik (University of Manitoba, Associate Professor of the Faculty of Education, on the topic Education of Indigenous Peoples of Canada – A Path to Empowerment or Colonization?), Indrek Park (Indiana University Bloomington, Research Associate, Language and Indigenous Identity on the Northern Plains), Dmitrii Harakka-Zaitsev (Chair of Consultative Committee of Finno-Ugric Peoples, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues expert 2017-2019, Finno-Ugric Cultural Cooperation: Roots, Tendencies, Examples), Art Leete (Tartu University, Professor of Ethnology, Colonial Ambivalence of the FinnoUgric Ethnography), Eva Toulouze (INALCO/University of Languages and Cultures in Paris, Professor in Finno-Ugric Studies; Tartu University, Research Fellow in Ethnology, An Overview of the Religious Situation in the Udmurt Regions (Udmurtia, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan). The conference took place in collaboration with the NGO Fenno-Ugria (Estonia) and the Chair of Estonian Studies at University of Toronto.

On October 17th we watched the documentary “In the Steps of Forgotten Peoples” (ERR, 2021). The screening was followed by a discussion with conductor Endrik Üksvärav, Finno-Ugrist Taisto Raudalainen and folklorist and ethnomusicologist Taive Särg. The film follows Estonian chamber choir Collegium Musicale as they travel to visit and perform for the Finno-Ugric peoples whose folklore was the basis for Veljo Tormis’ choral masterpiece “Forgotten Peoples.” Many of these Baltic Finnish peoples are on the verge of extinction and have languages spoken by only a few people.

On October 20th, we participated in a virtual tour of the Estonian National Museum’s exhibit “Echo of the Urals,” our guide was museum educator Anti Lillak.

On November 14th, Laur Vallikivi presented another online lecture on the topic “Nenets Reindeer Nomads in the Early 21st Century.” Laur Vallikivi is an Estonian scholar of ethnology and Associate Professor at the University of Tartu. The lecture was followed by a screening of the documentary “The Brigade” (2000, F-Seitse), produced by Estonian anthropologist, director and cinematographer, Liivo Niglas. The film documents three months on the Yamal Peninsula in West Siberia, where the Nenets people have been herding reindeer for over a thousand years. The film was followed by a live Q&A with Laur Vallikivi and Liivo Niglas.

On November 24th, Laara Fitznor (University of Manitoba) presented a lecture on the topic “Indigenous Voices Speaking Back to Colonial Impacts Through the Power of Story.” Laara Fitznor, a member of the Nisichawaysihk Cree Nation in Manitoba was raised in the boreal forests of Wabowden, Manitoba. She pursued her dream of a university education once she learned that with a university education, she was in a position to embrace ways to challenge and counter acts of oppression while advancing Aboriginal/Indigenous knowledge(s), perspectives, histories, experiences, spiritualities, and realities through her community work and career. She incorporates decolonizing and bridging pedagogies in her work where people learn to challenge past wrongs and coexist in a way of respect, reciprocity, and responsibility.

The celebration of the 102nd anniversary of the University of Tartu as an Estonian language university was also dedicated to Indigenous Peoples. Valts Ernštreits presented a lecture on the topic “Indigenous Peoples of Baltics – Livonians”. Valts Ernštreits studied at the University of Tartu where he defended his doctorate on the development of the written language of Livonian in 2010. He is the editor of the Estonian-Latvian dictionary and portal and one of the creators of the website Ernštreits has worked at the University of Tartu and is currently the Lead Researcher at the University of Latvia’s Livonian Institute as well as the Chairman of the Livonian Cultural Centre. The lecture was followed by a screening of the documentary “Julgi” (2005), the author of which is also Liivo Niglas. The film focuses on Livonian and promoter of Livonian culture, Julgi Stalte. The Rector of the University of Tartu, Professor Toomas Asser, presented a video greeting.

The Finno-Ugric themed season was brought to a close by Ljudmila Ruukel, an Urdmurt living in Estonia, with the popular VEMU series “Cooking with…,” where she taught viewers how to cook Finno-Ugric foods. Ljudmila’s passion is the Finno-Ugric Food Culture Society through which she teaches cooking workshops all over Estonia.

This year’s Estonian Music Week was also dedicated to topic of Indigenous Peoples. The events described above formed the educational program of EMW 2021.

Piret Noorhani