Where have all the Sami gone?

Where have all the Sami gone?
You can live in Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmö your whole life and still know almost nothing about the Sami, the indigenous people of Sweden. One reason for this is that the Sami don’t make much of a bleep on the cultural radar screen.

The only times we read about the Sami, if we read about them at all, is when there is a local conflict regarding the right to fish, hunt or farm on lands used for reindeer grazing.

“We are small in numbers, so it is hard to break through into the mainstream media,” notes Nils Gustav Labba of the Sami Information Centre.

The Sami aren’t represented in the Swedish parliament, and they don’t get much attention in newspapers or magazines. Has a feature film ever been made about the forced christianization and cultural assimilation of the Sami?

What was it like to be a Sami during the period prior to World War II when Swedish professors taught that the Sami were a lower race, comparable to other “inferiors” like Jews or gypsies? That can’t have been too amusing.

While many Swedes are quick to protest about the historically bad treatment of the Aborigines of Australia or the Indian tribes of the Amazonian rain forests, they don’t seem as enthusiastic about going on the warpath in defence of Sami rights. Instead, there is a surprising indifference to the fate of this indigenous people, who also live in northern Norway, Finland and Russia.

There are surely some great but sad stories that could be told about the clash between a once-nomadic reindeer herding people and the Swedish “colonizers.”

Wouldn’t it be great to read an epic novel which told about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a Sami family, over the course of several generations? But a book like that doesn’t exist, as far as I can tell. Jan Guillou, where are you when we need you? (Guillou recently wrote a popular series of novels about the Vikings).

It may be trivial, but it strikes me as remarkable that there is apparently no restaurant in this country specializing in the meat and fish cuisine of the Sami — at the same time, it is easy to find restaurants focusing on Persian, Korean, Ethiopian, Thai or Italian cuisine.

Of course, there are only about 20,000 Sami in Sweden. But in neighbouring Finland, which has only about 5,000 Sami, there are several restaurants which specialize in the unique food of Lapland. There has also been a highly successful campaign in Finland to promote high-quality reindeer meat, which is organic, low in cholesterol and free of unhealthy fats. Reindeer meat, called “Pori,” tastes superb, and the Finns are marketing it as the “Kobe-beef of the Far North.”

I got a brief glimpse of the situation of Sweden’s modern Sami when I visited subarctic town of Luleå a few weeks ago. There, I met two sisters, Linea and Inga Kuoljok, who work in a fashion boutique a few blocks from the Bay of Bothnia.

Vivacious and good humoured, these modern Sami women seem amused and puzzled by the stereotypical way in which they are portrayed in the majority culture.

“We aren’t wearing kolts today,” says Inga, referring to the traditional costume of the Sami.

Chatting about food, they tell me that the Sami sometimes have reindeer meat in their coffee. Can that be true, or are they just teasing this ignorant American? I write down what they say dutifully in my trusty notebook and mutter darkly: “You really are barbarians.”

Linea, who has worked as a teacher, recalls how one student’s parent asked her if she “kept moose in the backyard in a corral.” At the same time, the two sisters are proud of the traditional culture they have inherited; in fact, their parents still work in the reindeer business. That makes the senior Kuoljoks a minority within a minority: only about 10 percent of the Sami still work in the reindeer trade.

The new generation of Sami today must balance and function equally well in two cultures which they appreciate in different ways.

This reality was also reflected when a group of Sami teenagers recently met to discuss their reaction to the simplistic way they are perceived by outsiders: “I have met some who are surprised that we have computers, mobile phones and know how to send text messages.

“We don’t live in igloos, wear kolts or sing joiks (the old Sami singing style, which is said to be the oldest musical form in Europe). We can be modern, too,” says eighth-grader Sara Parffa-Svonni, who goes to a school in Jokkmokk.