Border Digs in the Circumpolar North

Tracing Embodied Sites at the Intersection of Gender, Sexuality, and Race

in Sibirica
Author:
Jean Balestrery University of Michigan, USA jbalestrery@gmail.com

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Abstract

This article explores social identity borders at the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race in the Circumpolar North. Perspectives of those living in the Arctic who self-identify as women, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, or any combination thereof, is presented. An intersectional lens frames lived realities among marginalized communities within context of ongoing challenges and advocacy in the Circumpolar North. This exploration of social identity borders, or border digs, shows mutual imbrications of inequity across marginalized communities. Advocacy for equitable futures supports sustainable futures and these futures require cultural safety – a call to action.

This article centers lived experiences of strength and struggle across social identity borders in the Circumpolar North. It explores through an intersectional lens the reality of individuals living in the Arctic who self-identify as women, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, or any combination thereof. This exploration, or border digs, occurs at the juxtaposition of art and science. Two art photography exhibits featuring Indigenous Two-Spirit peoples in the Circumpolar North and true accounts from Indigenous women constitute sites for tracing border knowledge of real people living in the Circumpolar North. These sites articulate connections across diverse communities and make visible activism in the Arctic—activism that addresses discrimination and inequality while foregrounding courage and inspiration. These border digs advance sustainable futures for all.

As the author, I am cisgender female with ancestral roots in Europe. My residence is in the United States and includes periodic living and working in the Arctic. During my early childhood, I resided in São Paolo, Brazil—where some of my relatives reside. My background includes formal education in the US spanning media studies and video art followed by a joint PhD in social work and anthropology. As part of the LGBTQ+ community, I have collaborated with equity-seeking groups for many years to advance justice. These place-based and embodied experiences, alongside my formal education and many years of research and clinical practice experience, inform the prism of my perspective.

Strength…and…Struggle

strength: the quality or state of being strong; capacity for exertion or endurance; power to resist force; solidity, toughness; power of resisting attack
struggle: to make strenuous or violent efforts in the face of difficulties or opposition; to proceed with difficulty or with great effort

Strength and struggle, as defined here by Merriam-Webster, are concepts with relative valence and resonance. Both are among aspects that characterize lived realities at the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race in the Arctic—the Circumpolar North. Exploring social identity borders through an intersectional lens shows mutual imbrications among the lives of women, LGBTQ+ peoples, and Indigenous peoples or any combination thereof. Here, art, science, and true accounts converge through activism in the Arctic, which is about becoming visible for sustainable futures.

Two art exhibits in the Arctic showcase photographic images that capture contours of cultural identity and tell real stories.
Queering Sámi (Boddy 2018–ongoing): art photography exhibit of Sámi LGBTQ+ peoples.
Continuous (Miller 2015–2018): art photography exhibit of Alaska Native LGBTQ+ peoples.
Highlighting voices and diverse identities of Indigenous women through true accounts.
What is visible and voiced frame spirited stories of human experience in the Arctic.

Through art, Tim Boddy and Jennifer Irene Miller advocate for LGBTQ+ human rights. In the exhibit Queering Sámi, Tim shares his intention: “I'm keen in my practice to highlight issues centered around LGBTQ+ culture and identity, an issue close to my heart, and use my voice to bring a spotlight to marginalised groups. While documenting the Sami community is a very specific example (and one that absolutely is of importance in itself), I believe there's also a universality to the project in relation to the broader LGBTQ+ community….” (Boddy 2018–ongoing) In the exhibit Continuous, Jennifer explains that the work is “personal and communal. It is the product of the many years it took me to overcome the internalized hatred and fear of my own identity and sexuality. It is in the unity and diversity of the Indigenous LGBTQ2+ community where I found the strength to be who I am today… Continuous connects us to a growing global community of Indigenous LGBTQ2+ people.” (Miller 2015–2018).

Many mirrors: Queering Sámi is based in Norway and Continuous is based in Alaska.
Queering Sámi (Boddy 2018–ongoing): “Indigenous Sámi people inhabit a cultural region known as Sápmi, an area that encompasses predominantly Northern Scandinavia, who have been subjected to discrimination and oppression by dominant cultures and states for centuries, and prejudice exists to this present day.”
Continuous (Miller 2015–2018), featuring individuals from Alaska's Two Spirit community, explores identity, sexuality, gender diversity, discrimination, and pride and how those elements overlap, diverge, and inform each other… although the individuals in this series were willing to share their identities and stories, some LGBTQ2+ people cannot safely do so, because of the discrimination that exists.”
Queering Sámi (Boddy 2018–ongoing): “Within the Sámi community there have been endeavors since 2010 to make visible people who identify as both LGBTQ+ and Sámi.”
Indigenous women from all over the world share words and create windows for seeing.

“Indigenous women face discrimination because of their ethnic origin; gender; economic, political, societal status or class; disability; and location. This compound effect puts many of us at the edges of survival” Executive Director, Cultural Survival (Angarova 2021: 1). The embodiment of multiple intersecting identities associated with stigma and discrimination is a context of “compounded colonization” (Balestrery 2012).

Contextualizing Embodied Intersections

Colonial histories among Sámi in Nordic countries are multifaceted and diverse. Common among these histories are asymmetrical power relations and structural injustices that span from government actions to local relations. Regarding a Nordic colonialist past: “There will never be a consensus” (Lehtola 2015: 22). Yet, notably, the Sámi in Nordic countries received the first official apology at the opening of the Norwegian Sámi Parliament in 1997 by King Harald V of Norway. From the middle of the nineteenth century until World War II, nation-states have tried to assimilate the Sami into the majority population through the policy referred to as “Norwegianization” (Blix et al. 2013: 265). Following World War II, a national focus on human rights supported a growing Sami movement advancing ethnic and cultural revitalization—a movement that continues today.

Colonial histories among Indigenous American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) peoples in Alaska and the continental United States are also multifaceted and diverse. “AIANs have suffered numerous historical experiences of European colonization and the ongoing contemporary effects of colonization (e.g., oppression)” and “HT [historical trauma]-related cumulative emotional and psychological wounding has been a key discourse among AIAN communities as it relates to various health conditions” (Walters et al. 2018).

Indigenous women all over the world share about histories of colonization from their unique perspective. In the Circumpolar North, an Indigenous Sami woman, Jannie Staffansson, explains: “we have been colonized and stereotyped as being less and knowing less…” and “women are culture carriers in Saami society, as in many Indigenous societies, and because of that we feel the effects of colonization strongly…in Indigenous societies women are also struck harder by the effects of climate change, since the impacts of climate change also affect your Indigenous culture. Many women struggle with this” (Ferris 2021: 13). Staffansson continues to contextualize the importance of Saami culture: “The reindeer and the Saami, our history and our story have always been one in the same. In the Saami creation story, the world was created from a reindeer. Her eyes are the stars, her blood are the rivers, and her hair is the forest. She is the world that sustained us, and because of that relationship that has been for generations, she has kept us alive and we have helped her be alive, too. That is a sacred promise that we have made as a people to the reindeer. We are taught not to violate that” (Ferris 2021: 13).

Queering Sámi (Boddy 2018–ongoing): stark images and scenes centering Indigenous Sámi LGBTQ+ in visible gákti (traditional Sámi clothing) and emanating exquisite beauty

“Traditionally, Sámi LGBTQ+ have had a difficult time being open and visible in regards to their sexuality or expression of gender, due to the conservative aspects of Sámi culture” (Boddy 2018—Ongoing).

Continuous (Miller 2015–2018): “the ability to overcome troublesome obstacles” is the most important quality in a LGBTQ2 role model… “no one should be afraid of the life they live, whether they are straight, bi, lesbian or gay…” – Bethany

In an Arctic region in Alaska, “in 2017, the per-capita rate of sexual violence incidents reported to law enforcement was 106 percent greater in Western Alaska than the statewide rate…” (KNOM Radio 2021) and “the risk of rape or sexual assault is 2.5 times higher for Native women than the rest of the United States” (Urban Indian Health Institute 2018). “Law enforcement must be held accountable for perpetuating racial and gender-based discrimination against Indigenous women” (ACLU Alaska 2022).

Queering Sámi (Boddy 2018–ongoing): Meeting Anne Henriette Reinås Nilut and Runar Myrnes Balto, they are among three openly LGBTQ+ members of the Sámi Parliament (Sámediggi)

“In 1989 the first Sámi Parliament (Sámediggi) was set-up in Norway; Sweden and Finland following suit in the 1990’s. These Parliaments focus on the specific needs of the Sámi—numbering between 80,000 and 100,000—such as self-determination, language recognition, funding, land rights, human rights, and other heritage concerns” (Boddy 2018—Ongoing).

Continuous (Miller 2015–2018): “I belong to several marginalized communities—women, Indigenous, LGBTQ—and like everyone, I exist in a world that has already defined for me what is considered normal and best: White. Heterosexual. Male…too much is at stake when we do not define ourselves; it's time to change the narrative: We are — Beautiful. Perfect. Powerful. Indigenous. Two-Spirit. Queer AF. LGBTQ.”—Moriah

“However, progress is being made. In 2014 the first Sápmi Pride took place in the Swedish town of Kiruna, and three openly gay Sámi members of Parliament have been elected since 2016—thanks to the help of a Queering Sámi project and various organisations from within the community to help protect and empower queer Sámi people” (Boddy 2018—Ongoing).

Queering Sámi (Boddy 2018–ongoing): “Younger members are more likely to feel more comfortable in their sexual and gender identity than years gone by, while some consider themselves activists for Sámi and LGBTQ+ rights. However, these remain complex ideas in regards to identity, and acceptance within the community is not always easy.”

Indigenous women: “We are the powerhouses of our movements, the backbones of our communities and the nurturing hearts for our families.” Executive Director, Cultural Survival (Angarova 2021: 1).

Continuous (Miller 2015–2018): “It was not easy coming out, but I like to think I've gained some self respect by doing so. Being closeted perpetuates the idea that being gay is wrong when it is not. Why should I hide something that should be celebrated?” —Anthony

Council member Jennifer Reader says that increasing law enforcement is not the way to increase the arrest and conviction rate for sexual assaults: “I wholeheartedly believe that our community has a humanity problem.” (KNOM radio 2021)

Queering Sámi (Boddy 2018–ongoing): “Set-up portraits…positive images of queer identity… There are numerous Sámi tribes across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Murmansk Oblast (Russia), with the aim of this project to document a cross-section of individuals from differing backgrounds.”
Continuous (Miller 2015–2018): ““Growing up, I struggled coming to terms with my identity and not knowing the possible support groups or programs available. I felt confused and at a loss to who I was… coming out was tremendously difficult…” —Toini
Queering Sámi (Boddy 2018–ongoing): “It's also of importance to include a diverse range of people from across the LGBTQ+ spectrum to further provide visibility within the Sámi community.”
Continuous (Miller 2015–2018): My sister “gave caring support, while the rest of my family felt indifferent. Today I still have relatives who don't agree with my sexuality. Nonetheless, I feel strong being myself, knowing who I am and staying true to that is the best choice I have ever made.”—Toini

Implications

Strength and struggle presented here articulate local-global connections within context of colonial legacies that continue today in the Circumpolar North. True accounts of lived experiences in the Arctic at the intersection of those who self-identify as women, LGBTQ+ and Indigenous or any combination thereof show evidence of ongoing inequities. Voicing these inequities and being visible is advocacy. Advocacy aims to make positive change by eliminating all forms of inequity. In doing so, quality of life improves for all in the Arctic. Cultural safety is a requirement for promoting safety, acceptance, and respect, particularly those located at social identity borders (Mehus 2019). Advancingcultural safety in the Circumpolar North and all of society supports sustainable futures. Making cultural safety a goal at the individual, group, and institutional levels is a call to action.

References

  • ACLU Alaska. 2022. “Hardy and ACLU settle case against Nome 5 years after police ignored her pleas for help.22 March. https://www.acluak.org/en/news/hardy-and-aclu-settle-case-against-nome-5-years-after-police-ignored-her-pleas-help.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Angarova, Galina. 2021Indigenous Women, The Strength of our Communities.” Cultural Survival 45 (1): 1.

  • Balestrery, Jean E. 2012. “Intersecting discourses on race and sexuality: Compounded colonization among Alaska Native/American Indian LGBTTQ+ peoples.” Journal of Homosexuality 59 (5): 633655. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2012.673901.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Blix, Bodil Hansen, Torunn Hamran, and Hans Ketil Normann. 2013. “Struggles of being and becoming: A dialogical narrative analysis of the life stories of Sami elderly. Journal of Aging Studies 27: 264275.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boddy, Tim. 2018–Ongoing. “Queering Sámi.” PhMuseum. Retrieved February 2023 from: https://phmuseum.com/timjboddy/story/queering-sami-1de80e7862; https://timboddy.com/Queering-Sami.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ferris, Shaldan. 2021. “Living in two worlds in Sapmi.” Cultural Survival 45 (1): 1213.

  • KNOM Radio. 2021. “Seeking Protection, Wanting Justice: Disparities in Sexual Assault Crimes in Nome,” Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. January-February. KNOM Radio Mission.

  • Lehtola, Veli-Pekka. 2015. “Sami histories, colonialism and Finland. Arctic Anthropology, 52 (2): 2236.

  • Mehus, Grete, Berit Andersdatter Bongo, Janne Isaksenand Engnesa, and Pertice M. Moffitt. 2019. “Exploring why and how encounters with the Norwegian health-care system can be considered culturally unsafe by North Sami-speaking patients and relatives: A qualitative study based on 11 interviews.” International Journal of Circumpolar Health 78: 19. https://doi.org/10.1080/22423982.2019.1612703.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Miller, Jenny Irene. 2015–2018. “Continuous.” Retrieved February 2023 from: https://www.jennyirenemiller.com/continuous.

    • Export Citation
  • Urban Indian Health Institute. 2018. “Sexual Violence among Native Women: A public health crisis.” Retrieved February 2023 from: https://www.uihi.org/resources/sexual-violence-among-native-women-a-public-health-emergency/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Walters, Karina L., Selina A. Mohammed, Teresa Evans-Campbell, Ramona E. Beltran, David H. Chae, and Bonnie Duran. 2018. “Bodies don't just tell stories, they tell histories.” Du Bois Rev 8 (1): 179–189. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742058X1100018X.

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Contributor Notes

Jean E. Balestrery holds a Joint PhD in Social Work and Anthropology from University of Michigan, an MA in Anthropology from University of Michigan, a MSW from University of Washington, and a BA from Brown University. She is an interdisciplinary scholar-practitioner and Spirit of Eagles Hampton Faculty Fellow with many years of combined experience in research, teaching, and practice, which spans varied locations, including the Arctic. Dr. Balestrery has presented research nationally and internationally, currently serves on the U.S. National Association of Social Workers Committee for LGBTQ+ Issues, and participates with Study of Environmental Arctic Change/SEARCH in Co-Production of Knowledge discussions. Email: jbalestrery@gmail.com; Twitter: @DrBalestrery

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Sibirica

Interdisciplinary Journal of Siberian Studies

  • ACLU Alaska. 2022. “Hardy and ACLU settle case against Nome 5 years after police ignored her pleas for help.22 March. https://www.acluak.org/en/news/hardy-and-aclu-settle-case-against-nome-5-years-after-police-ignored-her-pleas-help.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Angarova, Galina. 2021Indigenous Women, The Strength of our Communities.” Cultural Survival 45 (1): 1.

  • Balestrery, Jean E. 2012. “Intersecting discourses on race and sexuality: Compounded colonization among Alaska Native/American Indian LGBTTQ+ peoples.” Journal of Homosexuality 59 (5): 633655. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2012.673901.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Blix, Bodil Hansen, Torunn Hamran, and Hans Ketil Normann. 2013. “Struggles of being and becoming: A dialogical narrative analysis of the life stories of Sami elderly. Journal of Aging Studies 27: 264275.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boddy, Tim. 2018–Ongoing. “Queering Sámi.” PhMuseum. Retrieved February 2023 from: https://phmuseum.com/timjboddy/story/queering-sami-1de80e7862; https://timboddy.com/Queering-Sami.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ferris, Shaldan. 2021. “Living in two worlds in Sapmi.” Cultural Survival 45 (1): 1213.

  • KNOM Radio. 2021. “Seeking Protection, Wanting Justice: Disparities in Sexual Assault Crimes in Nome,” Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. January-February. KNOM Radio Mission.

  • Lehtola, Veli-Pekka. 2015. “Sami histories, colonialism and Finland. Arctic Anthropology, 52 (2): 2236.

  • Mehus, Grete, Berit Andersdatter Bongo, Janne Isaksenand Engnesa, and Pertice M. Moffitt. 2019. “Exploring why and how encounters with the Norwegian health-care system can be considered culturally unsafe by North Sami-speaking patients and relatives: A qualitative study based on 11 interviews.” International Journal of Circumpolar Health 78: 19. https://doi.org/10.1080/22423982.2019.1612703.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Miller, Jenny Irene. 2015–2018. “Continuous.” Retrieved February 2023 from: https://www.jennyirenemiller.com/continuous.

    • Export Citation
  • Urban Indian Health Institute. 2018. “Sexual Violence among Native Women: A public health crisis.” Retrieved February 2023 from: https://www.uihi.org/resources/sexual-violence-among-native-women-a-public-health-emergency/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Walters, Karina L., Selina A. Mohammed, Teresa Evans-Campbell, Ramona E. Beltran, David H. Chae, and Bonnie Duran. 2018. “Bodies don't just tell stories, they tell histories.” Du Bois Rev 8 (1): 179–189. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742058X1100018X.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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