Finno-Ugric Peoples Have Much to Learn from the Indians

(by Kerti Tergem)

From March 2 to 9 Wesley Stevenson, Executive Director of Finance and Administration of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College was the guest of the Fenno-Ugria Foundation in Estonia. His main interest was to promote contacts between his College and the universities of Estonia and to further the establishing of the Centre of Indigenous Peoples in Tartu. In Tallinn, Tartu (Tartu University) and Viljandi (Viljandi College of Culture) he also delivered lectures on the Canadian Indian reserve life in the early 20th century.

Since 1492, when Indians discovered Columbus, American history has been portrayed from the suppressor's point of view. So the Indian Administration decided to create their own educational system to educate Indians the best way they know. And they have proved to be effective. The Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, established in 1976 is an independently administrated University College, all its programs being fully accredited through the University of Regina. The College has over 50 full-time faculties and has developed a unique Indian curriculum. Among other subjects, the Indian College prepares specialists in Indian Social Work, Indian Management and Administration herewith supporting its students in entering the mainstream population. 85% of the students are of first nations (as the Indians call themselves).

Mr Stevenson is a Cree Indian, member of the biggest Indian tribe in Canada, numbering 185 thousand. This is almost one third of the whole Indian population there. What distinguishes them from their neighbouring tribes, Mr Stevenson said, half joking, is that they are very lucky. Though, for the Indian people in Canada "the rivers stopped flowing and the sun stopped shining a long time ago".

The Centre of Indigenous Peoples. Why in Estonia?

Today there are more than 80 Finno-Ugrian students studying at the universities of Estonia. They have to get an education which meets the needs of their homeland on one hand, while on the other hand, like the Indians, they need a structure to protect their identity amid a culture seemingly similar. The Indian Federated College seemed to be appropriate for sharing their experience of generating such a system in Estonia. Because of technical resources available today this period in the history of the Baltics provides an opportunity that was not there in the past and maybe will not be there in the future. And as far as government agencies are willing to provide money for a reform of the Baltic States at the moment, as Mr Stevenson pointed out, there will be a good chance for the Indian College to expand their international programme. For this particular reason Mr Stevenson met the minister of culture of Estonia and the rector of Tartu University. The key figures of the University understood the necessity of establishing a system which would help the Finno-Ugric students of Estonia to integrate into our academic society and to provide a cultural environment which supports their identity. This is a big challenge. Mr Stevenson found that if we succeed in establishing such a Centre it will be rewarding.

The mental attitude of Indians and Estonians is similar

Before making important decisions the Cree Indians burn sweetgrass. "With this smoke, that is looked at as a symbol of sacredness you purify your words, your mouth, so that you speak the truth, and your eyes and your ears so that you will see clearly and you hear other people," Mr Stevenson explained. Proper hearing of other people is particularly important for the Indian people. That is the precondition for starting any cooperation. Mr Stevenson found that the long history of repression and efforts to maintain our own identity have generated similar characteristics to the Estonians and the Indians. The recognition of the importance of maintaining ones identity that Mr Stevenson met in Estonia gave him additional reason to believe even deeper in the necessity of the College he works for in Canada.

Grassroots nourish our urge for survival

Both Indian and Finno-Ugric peoples rely ever so much upon Mother Earth, they live harmoniously to survive. Mr Stevenson felt that connections with our roots must have helped the Estonians survive the long history under domination. He particularly enjoyed his trip to South Estonia and he thinks that the area of Viljandi continues to be the protector of Estonian traditional culture. For good hope to the future contacts of the Indian and the Finno-Ugric peoples Mr Stevenson carried out a traditional Indian purifying ritual at the new rooms of the Estonian-Mordvin, -Mari and -Saami Societies, burning sweetgrass.

"Smoke is looked at as a symbol of sacredness. You purify your words, and your mouth so that you speak the truth, and your eyes and your ears so that you will see clearly and you hear other people," Stevenson says, adding that proper hearing of other people is particularly important for the Indian people when starting any cooperation.

A slightly different edition of this article was published in The Baltic Times (May 2-8, 1996) and an Estonian edition in Fenno-Ugria Infoleht (No. 1/1996)

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