In search of the Sami in Scandinavia

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Lapland means Santa to most holidaymakers, the home of Father Christmas. It’s a December destination complete with elves and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But Lapland is home to the Sami people and a region to explore year-round, as Jo Durbridge reports.

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It’s easy to think of Lapland – a land of snowy mountains, lakes and rivers, tundra and forest – as one big tourism factory dedicated to getting children close to that guy with the big white beard and the rest of us ‘back to nature’. If I needed reminding of it, I got it on a reindeer safari in northern Finland surrounded by jolly holidaymakers laughing nervously at the thought of being dragged across the frozen lakes by reindeer of all shapes and sizes.

This was a sanitised Sami experience, packaged by tour operators. We were on what seemed to be a reindeer farm a few miles outside of Levi in Finland, deep inside the Arctic Circle. However, our guide seemed reluctant to talk about whether this was a working farm or not, batting the question aside in favour of tedious health and safety briefings. You couldn’t blame her. After all, this was all about cute animals and fun on sleighs, not real life. But this is the real sami in Scandinavia.

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But after our little safari through the stunning, frozen scenery, I did manage to find myself a Sami farmer who was happy to talk about his working farm a few miles away. While I gazed at chunks of reindeer meat hanging out in the freezing cold, drying in the air, he talked about how his reindeer roam free during much of the spring and summer in the local forests.

As autumn and winter beckons, he begins the process of rounding them up, ready for the time when quite a few of them will end up in the abbatoir. He couldn’t really tell me how many reindeer he had, but no doubt I’d eaten of few of them in Levi’s restaurants. And very delicious they were too, with creamy mash potato and berries. Their fur filled the souvenir shops.

Sadly, this may well be a dying annual cycle. The Sami– the only indigenous people in the European Union, living mainly in the northern regions of FinlandNorway and Sweden – are facing what many traditional societies are having to come to terms with. Young people are being drawn to the big towns and cities by better jobs and higher pay. Reindeer herding, fishing and hunting just can’t compete, despite pro-active attempts to protect the language and culture of the Sami in the Scandinavian countries.

The guide books try to reinforce the point by getting visitors to call the land Sápmi, which is how the locals know it. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of calling a Sami person a Lapp or Laplander. It’s a bit of a slap in the face.

As my reindeer safari proved, the Sami have always had a strong connection with the land, their ancient religion involving the spirit world and the power of nature. They believe that everything is connected to the earth. Mountains and fells, lakes and rivers, are worshipped. They also believe that everything organic has a soul. One of their more famous beliefs revolves around the Northern Lights; created when a fox ran across the night sky, sweeping the heavens with its tail and leaving behind a spectacular glow for the people of the north to see.

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Shamanism has also been an essential part of their history and the Sami witch drum is today a popular souvenir among tourists.

The Sami way of life, its struggling languages and culture are all profiled in the Samiland exhibition at the Levi Summit Centre in Levi, part of a UNESCO effort to keep alive the memories and traditions of indigenous people around the world.

I was astonished to find that they were persecuted well into the 20th century even in hip, touchy-feely, left-leaning Finland. It’s a bit of a dry exhibition but outside are some traditional Sami buildings, including kotas (or tepees), turf huts and wooden storage rooms. Typically, there’s a small enclosure for some friendly reindeer.

Inside, some Sami slöjd, or handicraft, is either on show or available to buy. Look out for engraved reindeer horn, clothing, bracelets and other jewellery, bags and baskets.

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In northern Norway, it’s possible to discover more about the Sami in their capital, Karasjok. The Sápmi Culture Park is a place to hear the Sami joik – the distinctive songs and singing style of the Sami, eat Sami food, meet the locals and see traditional homes and buildings. There are plenty of reindeer to meet and the town is home to the Norwegian Sami Parliament (pictured).

Karasjok is usually a pretty small capital, with just 3,000 inhabitants, unless you visit in the autumn. That’s when farmers bring about 60,000 reindeer to town.

There are certain times of the year when visitors can get a real taste of Sami culture, not least Sami National Dayon February 6. The day is marked differently depending on where you are but in Tromsø in Norway there are reindeer races, lasso championships and a Sami market.

Easter is another popular occasion, traditionally the time of year when the reindeer-herding Sami gather to celebrate the end of winter and to marry. In Karasjok and Kautokeino, events include the Sami Grand Prix – a sort of Eurovision Song Contest for Sami culture – and the annual reindeer race, concerts, theatre performances and exhibitions.

July sees the Riddu Riddu Sami Festival in Kåfjord, Norway, featuring music, film and art as well as activities for children.

In Sweden, a popular tourist destination in the height of summer is the Njarka Sami Camp by Lake Häggsjön, near the ski resort of Åre. At this farm, visitors can learn about reindeer, feed them and their calves, try lassoing and learn about Sami culture and customs.

Another great place to buy Sami handicraft is at the Jokkmokk winter market at the end of January and early in February – at 400 or so years old, it’s as traditional as traditional gets.
Written by John Durbridge for our friends at DailyTravelIdeas