• Photo by Epp Kubu, “The First to Leave”. 2018

Online discussion “Rethinking Indigeneity in the Baltics”

On 28 February at 18:00—20:00 EET

The discussion will be live streamed on Facebook:

Participants: Bart Pushaw, Toms Ķencis, Valters Sīlis, Kristina Norman, Anna Varfolomeeva, Ugnė Barbora Starkutė, Kristina Jonutytė. Moderators: Linda Kaljundi, Ieva Astahovska.

Indigeneity is a complicated construct. It depends on the existence of a foreigner or outsider who asserts power, dominion, or control despite the ongoing reality and pre-existence of local sovereignty. As colonialism becomes an increasingly influential lens through which to view Baltic history and culture, the meanings, possibilities, and limitations of “indigeneity” assume new urgency. However, the desire to understand an indigenous culture creates other complex issues. Claiming indigeneity became relevant to the forms of symbolic resistance during the Soviet occupation and to the complex relations with national and local minority cultures in the post-Soviet region. However, Baltic “indigeneity” flirts with ethnic nationalism and its claims of authenticity.

Today, Sámi remain the only recognized Indigenous people of Europe. In the realm of culture, many Sámi artists have used global platforms – exhibitions, art actions, etc. – or to draw attention to the green colonialism that continues to displace and disrupt customary lifeways as Nordic countries flaunt a commitment towards “sustainability.” Sámi share histories and experiences of dispossession, assimilation, and epistemicide with smaller Finno-Ugric nations and other peoples minoritized in their homelands in and around the Baltic region. Though Sámi Indigeneity stands at odds with Baltic indigeneity, there are powerful correspondences that often elide closer critical attention. This online seminar opens up the limits and potentials of indigeneity as both mode of being and as a strategy that grapples with unequal power relations and current crises about colonialism, decolonization, and the environmental extractivism of nation states.

This discussion is part of the research and exhibition project “Reflecting Post-Socialism through Post-Colonialism in the Baltics”, organized by the Latvian Center for Contemporary Art in Riga in collaboration with Kumu Art Museum and the research project “Estonian Environmentalism in the 20th Century” (both Tallinn). The project analyses the imprints of post-socialism and post-colonialism in the Baltic region, here exploring them through the prism of environmental history and the current ecological crisis.


Bart Pushaw

Institutionalizing Indigeneity? Art Museums, the Indigenous Arctic, and “The Art of Nordic Colonialism”

Since its 2019 launch in Nuuk, the international research project “The Art of Nordic Colonialism: Writing Transcultural Art Histories” has endeavored to elevate Afro-Caribbean, Sámi and Inuit art and expressive culture as critical nodes of an emergent mapping of colonial histories across the Nordic countries. Part of this collective project has both facilitated and critically reflected on the sudden interest by non-Indigenous specialists as institutions acquire and exhibit works by both Inuit and Sámi artists with increasing frequency. However, assumptions of an Indigenous “boom” demonstrate ongoing colonial ignorance. This presentation examines how art history might combat this colonial ignorance, and insists upon the distinction between “Indigeneity” and “indigeneity” in the mapping of Nordic and Baltic colonial histories.

Bart Pushaw is Mads Øvlisen Fellow in Art History at the University of Copenhagen and a researcher in the project “The Art of Nordic Colonialism: Writing Transcultural Art Histories.” His research lately focuses on the colonial Americas since 1700, with a particular emphasis on the Indigenous Arctic. He builds on his training in Nordic and Baltic studies to write global art histories that entangle the Nordic and Baltic countries with Alaska and Kalaallit Nunaat. Alongside Linda Kaljundi, Eha Komissarov, Ulrike Plath, and Tiiu Saadoja, he is a co-curator of the forthcoming exhibition “Art in the Age of the Anthropocene” opening at Kumu Art Museum in May 2023.

Valters Sīlis, Kristina Norman

The First to Leave

In 2018, the Latvian New Theatre Institute produced a play by Latvian and Estonian artists of different disciplines, “The First to Leave”, about the Livs or Livonians, indigenous people who lived in the territory of these countries but have almost disappeared, and their history in the context of Estonian and Latvian statehood. Using archival material, personal stories, visual, musical and dramatic techniques, the artists invited us to look into the history of the Livs, what it meant in the political processes of both countries and what it means to be a Liv today.

A large part of the story of the performance was devoted to the different meanings of the Liv people in Estonia and Latvia in the 1920s and 1930s. When Estonia gained its independence, it was important for it to establish its belonging to the group of Finno-Ugric peoples, to which the Livs also belonged. In Estonia, the assimilation of the Livs was seen as a tragedy which every effort was made to prevent. In Latvia, on the other hand, the neighbouring country's interest in the Livs was perceived as a threat, which even led to tensions between the two countries in 1937, when Latvia expelled Oskar Loorits (1900–1961), the head of the Estonian Folklore Institute and the most prominent researcher of Liv folklore, from the country.

Valters Sīlis is a theatre director. Since 2008, he has directed more than 60 plays in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Italy and Finland. Since 2012 he has been a resident director at the Latvian National Theatre, but he also collaborates with independent theatres Dirty Deal Teatro and Ģertrūdes ielas teātris, as well as with the Homo Novus New Theatre Festival and the Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival. Many of his plays focus on new forms of drama, political, economic and ecological issues, but history is one of the main sources of inspiration in his creative work.

Kristina Norman is an artist who is interested in the issues of collective memory and forgetting, the memorial uses of the public space, but also in the subtle sphere of the body politics that transgresses the boundaries between the public and the private. In 2009 she represented Estonia at the 53rd Venice Biennial with a project “After-War” – a study of a conflict around the relocation of a Soviet World War II monument in Tallinn and Norman’s public intervention in the former location of the monument that became one of the most debated artworks in Estonia. In 2022 Norman represented Estonia at the 59th Venice Biennial with an ecocritical exhibition “Orchidelirium. An Appetite for Abundance”, a duo show with Bita Razavi, curated by Corina Apostol. Norman’s experimental film trilogy reflected on the legacies of colonialism from a specific Eastern European perspective.

Toms Ķencis

Projecting Indigeneity: Art and Science in Baltics during the Late Socialism

If indigenous is the colonial Other, it becomes a problematic category simultaneously as the idea of coloniality is challenged. Socialist postcolonial theories claim that the Soviet Union has multiple characteristics of an imperial –colonizing power. At the same time, Soviet ideologues developed and globally promoted their variety of anti-colonialism, reserved for the Third – not the Second – World countries.

The period of Late Socialism demonstrates scientific and artistic reflections on indigenous people as pre-modern inhabitants of Baltic lands. It allowed the drawing of symbolic resources for contemporary identity constructions and the political struggle. Distant (indigenous) past was also more resistant to ideological impositions of the day. I will look at two historical cases of projecting indigeneity as an anti-colonial strategy within the Second World during Late Socialism. The first case concerns the oeuvre of Estonian artist Kaljo Põllu (1934–2010), who conceptualized his art as a contribution to the ancient Finno-Ugric legacy. The second case concerns his contemporary Moscow-Tartu school of semiotics that created a particular discourse of timeless archaism. Moscow-Tartu's structuralist approach significantly influenced later interpretations of Latvian mythology.

Toms Ķencis, PhD. is a scholar of cultural nationalism and an occasional art critic. Toms works as a senior researcher at the University of Latvia Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art. His research interests stretch from verbal charms and ancient Baltic mythology to creative and knowledge production in Late Socialism.

Anna Varfolomeeva

Stone mining as Indigenous cultural heritage: the case of Veps in northwestern Russia

This presentation focuses on mining as an element of cultural heritage and Indigenous identity. It discusses the case study of the Veps Indigenous minority in Karelia, northwestern Russia. Since the 18th century, Karelian Veps have been extracting and trading rare ornamental stones: gabbro-diabase and raspberry quartzite. Currently, many Veps are still employed in stone quarries, but the mining industry is in decline. Stone mining is promoted as a part of Veps cultural heritage through state institutions, such as Veps ethnographic museum, as well as local state-funded initiatives, such as Veps ethnic theme parks. At the same time, current practices of stone extraction and the environmental impact of mining are a common source of disappointment as Veps feel alienated from the declining industry. Through the analysis of the Veps example, the presentation discusses the importance of Indigenous and local visions of heritage that question dominant state narratives.

Anna Varfolomeeva is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, University of Helsinki. Her postdoctoral project focuses on Indigenous notions of sustainability in industrialized areas of the Russian North and Siberia. Anna is the co-editor of “Multispecies Households in the Saian Mountains: Ecology at the Russia–Mongolia Border” (2019), and has published on Indigeneity in the Arctic and the symbolism of stone extraction.

Kristina Jonutytė is a social anthropologist, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Vilnius University (Lithuania). She conducts research on Buryat religion and society, with a particular focus on the post-Soviet resurgence of Buddhism in Ulan-Ude. She is interested in issues of identity and belonging, as well as political and economic anthropology.

Ugnė Barbora Starkutė is anthropologist, a PhD student in Vilnius University, Institute for Asian and Transcultural Studies and cofounder, researcher and educator in applied anthropology organization Anthropos. Her interests and areas of research are in coloniality and decolonization, indigenous movements, identity and activism.

Read more