In the 20th century, state-sponsored Christian missionaries and biologists carefully documented Sámi customs and clothing, even when trying to suppress them. The church and the state even conspired to dig up and desecrate Sami sacred sites and graves, measuring their skulls and skeletons in search of evidence of an “uncivilized” Proto-Aryan race.
Most recently, Sami have been featured in blockbuster movies such as Klaus and Frozen 2, where there are usually side characters who help in the quests of the settlers. In these images, the Sámi are almost always historical, in formal attire and nomadic attire.
The actual identity of the Sámi is much more complex. To begin with, their traditional territory is divided by four colonial powers (Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia), nine living local languages and four non-native ones. Forced assimilation programs in these countries led to further divisions between nomadic deer shepherds and settled “forest” or rural Sámi, who were more aggressively deprived of their traditions.
Choosing a historical setting, Skábma: Snowfall is able to hint at these influences without depicting them fully – for example, there is a sinister French naturalist who stops visiting the village of Ailu. But even the depiction of historical Sami can be fraught with problems.
“Defining what is traditional and what is not also narrows the image of Sami,” wrote Outi Lati, a researcher and designer of Sámi games, in an email to WIRED. Reindeer husbandry, traditional crafts and nature worship are part of the Sámi cultural heritage. But most Sami are Christians, many are unfamiliar with traditional crafts, and few would know what to do with a reindeer herd. Calling these things traditional may mean that these people are somehow less Sami.
This left Sámi artists like Auranen with a delicate task. “There is a fine line between negative stereotypes and the stereotypes that are needed,” she said. “People don’t know about Sámi culture. They don’t know who we are. And in that sense, stereotypes are useful. ”
“But… we fight these stereotypes at the same time we have them,” she said. “People expect us to be in this shop window and are disappointed … that we are not as exotic as they want us to be.
But one benefit of having Sámi people like Auranen manage the development of a Sámi game is that creators are free to design based on their views. Auranen knows that she does not offer an exclusive version of Sáminess – instead she offers her own interpretation, derived from her own experience of growth and discovery.
Short course in cultural heritage
The central theme of Ailu’s journey is “loss and return,” Auranen said, and it is a topic that is close to home. Auranen’s father was one of the “lost generation”, the Sami, who grew up without access to their traditional language or culture. As a result, Auranen herself was deprived of this education. “All these little details, they never came to me,” she said.