Everything Changes

When the world changes, everything changes, even things you didn’t know could. In my case, COVID-19 has changed something I previously believed to be fixed in stone: my PhD research topic. And in accepting that, I am brought somewhere I never dared believe my life would take me back to: Norway.

Backing up a bit might be necessary here. Throughout the last year, the plan was that my PhD research would focus on tourism in western Mongolia, looking at how traditional nomadic pastoralists diversify their income streams through heritage tourism and ecotourism in order to sustain a human-environment relationship in the face of a changing climate and globalising economy. However, to make a long story short, COVID-19 rendered this research entirely impossible (Mongolian borders completely closed, no research visas being issues, my university won’t grant ethical clearance…) and so I recently made the decision to change my field site and project, exploring similar themes in Sápmi/Norway instead.

The choice of Norway wasn’t random – I’ve been learning Norwegian for over ten years, have many close Norwegian friends and have a decent level of cultural familiarity with Norway. I have until the end of April to plan this research, then I have three months of language training May-July, and hope to begin fieldwork in August. Still, it all feels a bit like a whirlwind because I now have four months to do something that I’d normally have nine to twelve months for.

I basically find myself in the very unusual position of having time (fieldwork would begin in August 2021 and run for 12 months) and funding, but only the very beginnings of a project. In a way, I feel very lucky, and I want to use this opportunity to structure a project that really responds to research needs in the Sámi community in Norway, taking a bottom-up rather than top-down approach. I want this work to be as collaborative as possible.

I have not yet had the chance to read a whole lot about the history of Sámi people and land rights in Norway, except for a few newspaper articles, including this very interesting and concerning one [link]. I don’t want to give the impression that I think I can just ‘waltz in’ and easily change topic without doing the work, and I fully intend to spend the next 8 months before starting fieldwork reading and researching as much as I can, prioritising Sámi writers. I’ve already ordered a few novels by Sámi writers to start with. This research will inevitably touch on the topics of Sámi land rights, and land rights conflicts, as I am particularly interested in interrogating the hypocrisy and conflicts within different ideas of “sustainability” – i.e. what is environmentally sustainable is often forcing something else to become unsustainable.

I’ve even been sketching out some research questions:

  • Are cultural, ecological and financial visions of sustainability compatible?
  • Does funding tourist attractions / travel destinations that are run by Sámi people help make a distinctly Sámi form of life sustainable in Norway?
  • What motivates Sámi tourist hosts to share their cultural heritage and lands with visitors?
  • What is the history of Sámi land rights, conflict and exploitation, and how are those histories navigated in tourist offerings?
  • To what extent is participation in tourism, and curation of museums and other cultural heritage sites, an extension of the Indigenous right to self-determination?
  • Is there ambivalence or even tension within the Sámi community in Norway about participation in tourism?

Since there is this horrible and long history of anthropologists exploiting, othering, exoticizing, essentialising, commodifying and dehumanising Sámi communities, I am committed to treading carefully and respectfully and am currently thinking about who to contact first in making this project real. I also am fully committed to making this entire project COVID-safe, which means following all national and WHO guidelines and not putting anyone at any avoidable risk. It’s all a bit of a haze at the moment but I’m so passionate about this topic (Indigenous rights & representation in tourism) and excited to see how it develops further.

For the time being, I’m back in Manchester and preparing for my first ever solo-Christmas.

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