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Published: 2021-02-05

Umeå researcher appointed French knight

NEWS The honourary award "L'Ordre des Palmes Académiques" (the French Order of Academic Palms) instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte, has been awarded to Lena Maria Nilsson, Project Coordinator at Arcum, the Arctic Research Centre, and Deputy Director at Várdduo - Center for Sami Research, at Umeå University.

Text: Per Melander

When Lena Maria Nilsson was notified that she had been appointed a knight in France, she was puzzled. Becoming a knight wasn’t something she had ever thought or dreamed of.

- I have neither a sword nor a horse. But when I understood that it is a great honour at the highest level, I felt very pleased, says Lena Maria Nilsson and continues:


- I felt honoured to have been appointed together with a feeling of great responsibility. Being av knight feels like a kind of moral obligation. I do not want to disappoint those who trust in me.

Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte

She explains that the award entails that the French state appreciates the work she has done at the Arctic Research Centre (Arcum), where she has been employed since 2013. Together with the research attachés at the French and Canadian Embassies, Arcum has hosted a number of seminars and events, where the French Arctic research as well as the French/Canadian Arctic has been in focus.

- In the spring of 2014, Arcum had guests from the northernmost parts of Canada. Some of the guests, who just like me were Indigenous, only spoke French as a second language and did not know English. I became interested in improving my secondary school French, to be able to understand them better.

- Motivated by this, I began to actively seek to be involved in French-language collaborations, which was easy. As a country with observer status in the Arctic Council, France is involved in many Arctic contexts.

French-Swedish research day

In the spring of 2016, Lena Maria Nilsson was involved in organizing a French-Nordic seminar on the Urban Arctic in collaboration with Region Västerbotten and France.

- In November of 2016, I got a scholarship and spent a month in France, travelling around and meeting various Arctic researchers. These encounters resulted in, among other things, a scientific anthology on food sovereignty in the Arctic region, released in autumn 2020.

- And in November of 2017, Umeå University hosted the French-Swedish Research Day, an annual event that has never before been organized so far north. Over the years, I have also received guests from France in Umeå.

Are there any obligations as a knight?

- As I understand it, there are no clear assignments or obligations associated with the appointment. But of course, I feel very encouraged to continue to develop the relationships with French-speaking research environments after this. Research diplomacy is an important part of my work at Arcum.

- Although English is the world language of research, there is a lot of research in the world that is published in other languages, which is especially clear in Arctic research, where Russian is also an important non-English research language. Indigenous people from Canada, whom I met, have told me that French sometimes worked for them as an expression of colonial resistance.

- Even though my French is not yet fluent, I notice that trying to use some words and phrases in French, means a deeper contact. It is a way to open doors to new knowledge and networks in encounters with people who has a French cultural background.

Research diplomacy is an important part of my work at Arcum

Lena Maria further explains that the award will give her an opportunity to take part in other academic arenas than only the English-speaking ones. There is a network for Palm Knights all over the world, including a local branch in Sweden. The contacts and networks are probably the most important benefit she receives.

Have you received any physical award?

- I will get a diploma and a purple emblem with a palm badge to attach to the outside of my festive clothes. The decoration will occur after the pandemic is over, so it may take a while. On the other hand, there will be no opportunities to wear festive clothes before the pandemic is over. Possibly the decoration will be the first to be carried over a Sami gapte (traditional robe).

Additional benefit of speaking French

Finally, Lena Maria describes another French-speaking part of her life at the moment; opening her home to an asylum-seeking, age-updated girl from the Republic of the Congo.

- When the Swedish language is not sufficient, we use French to understand each other. I think that Sweden has a lot to learn from France when it comes to refugee policy. France does not deport young people to Afghanistan.

- France also does not send back young people who have fled Sweden, because they don’t count Sweden as a safe country for asylum seekers. I wish, deep in my knight heart, that Sweden would reconsider the global principles of human rights.

Lena Maria Nilsson
Project manager, project coordinator, other position