The original text was published in Finnish on the website of Yle on the 11th November 2018. The text from this article appears in our IF publication which will be distributed freely at Institut finlandais starting from 6 September 2019.

Wearing my pride

The flaming red broadcloth has been intricately embroidered with multi-coloured beads.

A Skolt Sámi woman’s headdress reveals a lot more about its wearer than an unpracticed eye can discern at a quick glance. It shows the marital status of its wearer. Is she married, a widow, or perhaps in search of a husband? According to an ancient tradition, when the promising suitor has been found, he ties a knot in the satin ribbons of the Skolt maiden’s bonnet. It signals to the family that they can start planning the wedding.

Jasmin Semenoff, an 18-year-old Skolt Sámi from Sevettijärvi, brushes the story off with a smile. “Maybe”, she says, “but no one does that anymore.”

The young woman dons her traditional Skolt Sámi outfit with expertise. First, she pulls on the shoes, made out of reindeer hide. She ties the yellow and red woollen bands with pom-poms around her ankles. She swiftly slips on her purple, ankle-length skirt. Its dozens of pleats make the hem swirl. A kuurta, a blouse embellished by numerous tucks and folds, tops off the skirt.

The whole is crowned by what Semenoff finds to be the most beautiful parts of the Skolt attire: the flaming red peeʹrvesǩ the maiden’s headdress, which she places on her forehead with trembling hands, and the beaded belt tied around the waist, which adds the finishing touch to the regal bearing of its wearer.

“I feel so good when I put on my dress. I feel proud.”

Her Skolt dress is the most beautiful thing she owns.

Peeʹrvesǩ is simpler than the wife’s headdress: the colourful satin ribbons float in the back, under the hair. The headdress makes the young Skolt woman stand tall and straight.

Proud is not the word Semenoff would use, however, in regard to her Skolt Sámi roots. She believes her parents did not feel the same way she does when they wore their Skolt attires. Decades ago, one did not feel proud about being Sámi. To be Skolt was even worse.

The Skolt Sámi are an indigenous people. They are one ethnic group among the Sámi people. The traditional homeland of the Skolt Sámi stretches out along the borderlands of Finland, Norway and Russia. In Finland there are about 600 Skolt Sámis. The Skolt language is threatened by extinction: only a few hundred speakers of Skolt remain. As recently as 2006 the youngest speaker of Skolt was over 30 years old.

Like the Carelians, after Finland lost swathes of its eastern territory to the Soviet Union in World War II, the Skolt Sámi had to leave their ancestral lands in Petsamo. They were able to move to their new homes in the area around Inari in 1949-1952. The final relocation plan established the Petsamo Skolts in the area around Nellim, the Paatsjoki Skolts in Kevätjärvi, and the Suonikylä Skolts around Näätämö. The Skolts are a minority within a minority, considered for a long time inferior among the other Sámi groups. Decades ago Sámi culture was not valued. It was easier to hide one’s roots than to show that one belonged to a minority.

Sámi crafts and the Sámi dress are the most visible part of the culture of this indigenous people.

From christening to burial, the Sámi dress journeys through the lifecycle of its wearer. The extended family makes sure the dress is properly donned and carried with poise.

Semenoff is nonetheless part of a generation that was taught the Skolt language in primary school for a few hours a week. The young girl resisted learning the language of her extended family. Her own family did not speak Skolt at home, and at the school of the bigger village the lessons of a minority language felt burdensome to the young girl.

“The feeling I rather associated with learning was shame, and I did not want to learn the Skolt language. But when we moved to Sevettijärvi, everything changed for me.”

After the Semenoff family moved to the some 200 strong Skolt Sámi village in Sevettijärvi, Jasmin grew interested in her family’s language. Several of her classmates were taking Skolt lessons and she no longer had to feel alone in the Sámi class. In addition, the culture of the Skolt was an important part of the school’s curriculum.

Sámi crafts and the Sámi dress are the most visible part of the culture of this indigenous people. The outfits are colourful and look like their owners. A Sámi dress is always unique.

The Sámi dress culture is alive and vibrant today and reflects the contemporary world. In most cases, the wearers grow into wearing their Sámi dress from early childhood. To grow into one’s Skolt dress, however, is more complicated.

Although more and more dresses can be seen every year, many Skolts acquire their first traditional outfit on the brink of adulthood.

Skolt women in particular have started to wear the traditional dress in increasing numbers. There is plenty to choose from in terms of the cotton fabrics in quantities of colours and patterns for skirts and blouses. The project of sewing one’s own määccak, or Skolt outfit, inspires one to experiment. It strengthens its creator’s personal identity.

At its best, the dress is like an extension of one’s skin. It is like roots that reveal from where its wearer originates and to which family she belongs.

Photo by Henry Lämsä

32-year-old Kati Ljetoff from Inari donned a Skolt dress for the first time only a few years ago. She became better acquainted with Skolt dress culture only when she started to study Sámi crafts.

“Wearing the Skolt dress has a weight to it. I don’t mean it in a negative way, I say that because it is a brand new thing to me.”

Wearing her own dress has not only made Ljetoff feel more connected to other Sámi, but also to her own roots. Barely anyone in her family has worn the Skolt dress.

As an adult Ljetoff found herself interested in Skolt Sámi handicrafts. She ended up at a school for artisans. “As I have grown older, I have finally understood where I belong. My own Skolt dress is a big part of it. I want it to become an even bigger part of myself than it is now,” she explains excitedly.

The wife’s headdress is the crowning glory of Skolt crafts. Šaamsiǩ is made for a goddess.

The Skolt dress differs quite a bit from Finland’s other Sámi outfits: it consists of a top and a bottom and it is ornamented with beadwork and completed by a variety of headdresses.

There are fewer than a dozen masters of Skolt handicrafts at the moment; for instance, there is only one person capable of making a šaamsiǩ, the wife’s headdress.

In the beginning of the year, Sámi Duodji, the association of Sámi handicrafts, brought together a group of artisans for a revitalization course during which they will learn how to craft a wife’s headdress from start to finish. The instructor is an experienced artisan – the only artisan who has crafted the wife’s headdress from beginning to end.

Ljetoff is one of the five artisans participating. She feels a sense of responsibility for the renewal of Skolt culture.

Always crafted in flaming red and ornamented by beadwork, the Wife’s headdress stands out among the Skolt headdresses. In the old days, the horn-like shape was created using birch bark. Today, the stiff base is cut out of an old felt boot. Even the most accomplished craftsperson needs months to create the base. Painstakingly, it is worked stitch by stitch until the final, hornlike shape of the headdress has been created.

“I’m burning to learn to master the making of a wife’s headdress. I really want to succeed in it. In the future, I’ll be one of the few masters of this art,” Ljetoff muses.

The concave top of the headdress curves like a horn to frame the woman’s face. More beadwork is used than in any other Sámi handicraft.

Photo by Henry Lämsä

Nervousness was what 30-year-old Heidi Gauriloff first felt when she donned her own Skolt outfit. With trembling hands, she set the maiden’s headdress on her head. Her Skolt Sámi language teacher was there to help her. Gauriloff had been waiting for this moment since childhood: she had finished a yearlong study of Skolt language.

“It was the high point of the year of studying my own language. The Skolt dress crowned the moment. I had finally mastered the Skolt language.”

That moment inspired Gauriloff to pursue studies of apprentice and artisan of Skolt handcrafts. In her family no one no longer wore the traditional dress. The revival of the dress culture became a big part of her personal and professional life. “I had nobody to teach me, to show me how,” she says.

A master artisan taught Heidi Gauriloff beadwork, how to make a Skolt maiden’s headdress, and the pattern for sewing a kuurta, the Skolt blouse.

Gauriloff also ended up at the wife’s headdress revitalisation course, where Kati Ljetoff also was studying. “This course has been tremendously important for us. The wife’s Headdress is a challenge already because so few of the master artisans have made one,” explains Heidi Gauriloff.

Whether it is the gákti of the North Sámi, the mááccuh of the Inari Sámi or the määccaǩ of the Skolt, the Sámi dress is versatile. It transforms from a formal outfit to a festival version, or a casual outfit for everyday use.

Wearing the Skolt dress can evoke a whole array of feelings in its wearer and in the Sámi community itself.

Jasmin Semenoff from Sevettijärvi donned her very own Skolt dress for the first time in secondary school. Before that, she had borrowed old Skolt outfits from her school or performed in borrowed ones. As a teenager, she resented having to use musty, used outfits. When she finally got to put on her very own dress, she was all smiles. Wearing her own Skolt dress instantly became a way to show her roots. Her outfit is entirely purple, her favourite colour. For her, the Skolt dress is one to wear with pride.

“In the old days we Skolts were often called ‘Russkies’.” These days, things are different. We are seldom considered inferior, especially among us young Sámis,” she says.

Wearing the Skolt dress can evoke a whole array of feelings in its wearer and in the Sámi community itself. The older Skolts are often not pleased with contemporary Skolt dressing. The boldness exhibited by young Skolt women can feel intimidating, or simply foreign, to older generations, for whom Skolt culture used to be a source of shame. “That’s not the right kind of dress, the kind we wore in the old days.” Or, “In the old days we couldn’t afford that many colours.”

Wearing a Skolt outfit requires a certain level of boldness. In young people’s experience, the attitudes towards the renewal of the dress can, at their worst, make people not want to wear the dress at all.

A young Skolt woman dons her dress as her individual self, yet still wanting to show off her origins. This kind of pride was unheard of even in the 1990s.

These days dress represents more positive emotions and experiences. From the moment a Skolt dons her traditional attire, not only present, but also past eyes are on her. Those eyes can feel like a burden. In the past, to be a Skolt Sámi was not a reason for vanity, the way it can be perceived today.

Dressed in Skolt dress, looking at oneself in the mirror, one is faced with profound questions. Do I have the right to don this dress even though I have spoken only Finnish until adulthood? I hope I do not have to hear negative comments about my dress.

The heaviest burden is on those who are the first ones to don the dress that reveals their Skolt roots after decades of shame.

“We Skolt Sámi should ask ourselves: are we still carrying the burden of shame? It is time to let go of it.”

Heidi Gauriloff tells that in addition to excitement, she also felt discomfort when she wore her Skolt dress for the first time. The feeling of discomfort was entirely caused by other people’s opinions. “When you put on a Sámi outfit, there are always people who criticise it. Is it the right kind? Is it worn in the right way?”

The question is about tooth and nail preservation of the old traditions and methods. “Our dress culture remains enclosed in a box. It seems to me that the older generations are keen on keeping that box locked up,” Gauriloff explains.

As an artisan, Gauriloff fears that if for example new colours are being shunned, the craft and the tradition will be confined to museums. In her view, “We should feel joy about each and every new wearer of the traditional dress, and of every new artisan.”

The young artisans wish to focus on encouraging and educating the younger generations. Kati Ljetoff’s message to the Skolt Sámi who are thinking about making their own dress: your dress will only strengthen your self-confidence.

“I feel happy about how I have grown as a person, and my dress is part of my personal growth. For me, the dress is the finest piece of clothing I have ever owned, and one that is the strongest part of myself,” Ljetoff shares.

Ljetoff thinks the traditional dress should reflect the times that the Sámi are living, not just their history. In the future, young Skolts will have many examples that show that there is no need to fear showing one’s roots.

“We Skolt Sámi should ask ourselves: are we still carrying the burden of shame? It is time to let go of it.”

Every person should be personally inspired to carry their dress with pride.

Jasmin Semenoff swears that one day she will be able to make everything for her outfit by herself. And if she experiments with something new, that does not mean she is forgetting the traditions.

“For me, the Skolt culture is something I want to take forward. When I’ll have a family of my own, I want my children to wear the Skolt dress and learn the language. I, too, will have the courage to speak.”


Text Sara Wesslin
Photography Henry Lämsä

The original article in Finnish can be found here.

Translation: Janna Jalkanen