Celebrating Boundaries and the Heritage of Distinction (Part 4): Norway, Finland and the gifting of Halti mountain

In this blog, I return to a theme that I have covered a few times before; that of how ‘heritage’ gets entwined with a celebration of boundaries. In previous posts, I have talked about (in Part 1) BEXIT and problems in Europe of how ideas of cultural ‘distinction’ becomes celebrated through notions of heritage; how heritage is used to justify seeing Europe as a sort of mosaic of necessarily distinct homogenous and strictly bounded cultures. I then followed this by tracing how this happens on the ground, (in Part 2) through various assumptions made about the distinction of ‘Cornwall’ and ‘Cornishness’. And a further blog (in Part 3) about how such tendencies can be seen through the unlikely lens of practising ‘hygge’ in Denmark (part 3).

In this blog, I am going to look at another ‘Scandinavian’ example; of how Finland is bounded, should be bounded and might be bounded, and explore some of the consequences of seeing the world in bounded fashion through a slightly paradoxical example, of how apparent disruption of boundaries actually seems to cement the idea of boundaries.

Last month (December 2017) saw the 100th birthday of ‘Finland’ – at least it was 100 years since Finland gained independence from Russia on 6th December 1917. As would be expected, the occasion saw many efforts on the part of the Finnish state and state supporting entities, to celebrate this centenary event. Not surprisingly, much of this effort worked through the management, curating and performance of various aspects of heritage.

The role of ‘heritage’ within these acts of celebration can be ably examined using the work of people like Anssi Paasi (‘institutionalisation of the region’) and Hannu Linkola’s work on the management of Finland’s landscape narrative. Even a cursory analysis of this material reveals a huge conscious and unconscious practice of ‘boundary marking’ through reference to items and processes of ‘heritage. Instead, however, I am going to focus on a seemingly unlikely (if not conscious critical) example of the efforts to give a piece of ‘Norway’ to ‘Finland’ as a birthday present:

Through more than 40 years of efforts on the part of local campaigners such as Bjørn Geirr Harsson in Norway, a proposal was placed before the Norwegian Government to gift a small piece of land along the Norway/Finland border to act as a birthday present. See this campaign video.

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At first glance, this example seems to be wonderfully celebratory of the idea that borders are always arbitrary. It turns out that the highest point in Finland was actually on the side of Mt Halti, which has two peaks; one at 1,361m (about one kilometer on the Norwegian side of the border), and one shorter peak –  Hálditšohkka’s – at 1,331m, which is still in Norway, but only about 31m from the border with Finland, which lies at 1,325m above sea level.

 The peak “would be a wonderful gift to our sister nation”, said the mayor of Kåfjord (in Norway) Svein Leiros, who with other local politicians has written to the government in Oslo to express enthusiastic support for the plan. “We want to reach out a hand to our neighbour that we will be able to shake across the summit.”

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As an article in The Independent (January 2017) put it; There is no real reason or need for the gift, but that’s kind of the point. “All over the world you find countries that fight or make war to enlarge their countries, but in this case Norway is willing to give away a small part without anyone asking for anything return,” Geirr Harsson added. “It is a gift from the heart of the Norwegians to Finland so we don’t expect anything back; we just want to give them something really nice when they celebrate 100 years as a free nation.”

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This seems to be a story with a positive and warm glow, and which seems to be seeking ideas of peaceful sharing rather than of strictly marking territory. “On the surface, this is a cute film about a very unique kind of gift between nations. But at its heart is something real and relevant,” says David Freid, director of Battle for Birthday Mountain: “While we witness the rising tumult along international borders – from Ukraine and Russia, to the South China Sea, to Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico – the idea behind ’Birthday Mountain’ is a rare international gesture worth admiring.”

But what does this gesture really mean? And is this gesture really critical of borders?

In many ways, the gifting of this land both points to the arbitrariness of national boundaries, but also perhaps underlines their value and meaning in terms of how they naturally act to mark off supposed units of culture. The giving of this piece of land would be a correspond to a (tiny) altering of the supposed mosaic of national boundaries, rather than calling their essential territorial meaning in to question. This would be a gift from ‘Norway’ to ‘Finland’ – an exchange between two essential entities; the territorial detail of these entities might no longer be ‘set in stone’, but the singular authority, and their ability to bound areas of land by marking territory is enhanced. The metaphorical image of two nation states shaking hands across the summit of the mountain just acts to reinforce claims to the natural legitimacy of essential nation states. And one could add that such a gesture might be seen as a particularly ostentatious and maybe even aggressive form of gift giving on the part of Norway, which is both very wealthy and also very mountainous (with a multitude of peaks much higher than Halti). Even after the gifting of this land, the highest point of the mountain (at 1361m) would still be on the Norwegian side of the border. The giving of a gift such as this would be an act of incredible power.

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In practice, the gifting didn’t happen, since Norway’s constitution clearly stipulates that the country is a “free, independent, indivisible and inalienable realm” – and so the surrender by the state of any part of Norwegian territory to another power is prohibited. This hasn’t stopped a fairly high profile campaign. An American-based group of Norwegian ex-pats has started a Facebook page, which (so far) has garnered nearly 20,000 ‘likes’. But I found the statement around the edges of a comment in the Guardian newspaper (from July 2016) highly revealing:

“Public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive in both Norway and Finland, with the only objection so far coming from the indigenous Sami community, whose reindeer roam freely across the border and who argue that the land should belong to neither country”

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To me, this example highlights not only the arbitrariness of national borders, but also the practice of how marginalised people are airbrushed out of the debate. … the implication that the local Sami people who have lived in the area for generations before either (something called) ‘Norway’, or (something called) ‘Finland’ even existed don’t count. Are the Sami people some sort of killjoys by arguing that the land should belong to neither country?

The ‘birthday mountain’ story has a nice feel to it, but it carries an implication that the practices that count with respect to these landscapes is the clicking of the LIKE button on Facebook. The practice of reindeer herding is not as important – and we should carefully gloss over and ignore any colonial overtones of how the Sami people and Sami society have been abused and marginalized for centuries.