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.

Where have all the Sami gone?

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.

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Down with hygge! Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

Hygge, the Danish art of getting cosy, has taken the world by storm. But the Swedish equivalent is refreshingly different, says David Crouch 

Down with hygge! Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

It is around six years since the Danish word hygge entered many of our languages. Hygge, pronounced hue-guh and generally translated as the art of cosiness, exploded almost overnight to become a global lifestyle phenomenon.

Hygge dovetailed with mindfulness and fed into other popular trends such as healthy eating, and even adult colouring books. “The Little Book of Hygge” became a publishing sensation and has been translated into 15 languages. In time for Christmas, its author has just issued a second book, “My Hygge Home”, one of dozens already on the market. This is the season of peak hygge, of candles, log fires, cups of cocoa and comforting music.

There is nothing wrong with new ways to relax, and certainly no harm in identifying them with Scandinavia. But as a guide to living your life, there are some problems with hygge. 

First, the original meaning of the word is too broad and subtle to enable a clear grasp of the concept among non-Danes. This probably helps to explain its appeal – hygge is an empty bottle into which you can pour whatever liquid you like.

Patrick Kingsley, who wrote a book about Denmark several years before the hygge hype, was “surprised to hear people describe all sorts of things” as hygge. Danes, he said, would use the word when talking about a bicycle, a table, or even an afternoon stroll. 

So it is hardly surprising that, outside Denmark, hygge is applied rather indiscriminately. Last week the New York Times devoted an entire article to achieving hygge while riding the city’s subway, of all places. “A train, after all, is basically a large sled that travels underground, in the dark,” it said, trying too hard to find a hint of Nordicness on the overcrowded railway.

READ ALSO: Danish word of the day – hyggeracisme

Hygge has become an exotic and mysterious word to describe more or less anything you want. It is as if someone decided that the English word “nice” had a magical meaning that contained the secret to true happiness, and then the whole non-English speaking world made great efforts to achieve the perfect feeling of “nice”. 

A second problem with hygge is that, in Denmark itself, it seems to operate like a badge of Danishness that can only be enjoyed by Danes themselves – a kind of cultural border that outsiders cannot cross. You can walk down a Danish street in the dark, one journalist was told, look through the windows and spot who is Danish and who is foreign just by whether their lighting is hygge or not.

When writer Helen Russell spent a year in Denmark, she was intrigued by hygge and asked a lifestyle coach about it. “It’s hard to explain, it’s just something that all Danes know about,” she was told. How could an immigrant to Denmark get properly hygge, Russell asked? “You can’t. It’s impossible,” was the unhelpful reply. It can’t be a coincidence that the far-right Danish Peoples Party has put a clear emphasis on hygge, as if immigration is a threat to hygge and therefore to Danishness itself. 

READ ALSO: It’s official – Hygge is now an English word

Outside Denmark, this exclusivity has taken on another aspect: where are all the children? Where amid the hygge hype are the bits of lego on the floor, the mess of discarded clothes, toys and half-eaten food, the bleeping iPads and noisy TVs? “Hygge is about a charmed existence in which children are sinisterly absent,” noted the design critic for the Financial Times. It’s as if the Pied Piper of hygge has spirited them away so you can get truly cosy. 

But there is a bigger problem with hygge. It is largely an invention, the work of some clever marketing executives. After spotting a feature about hygge on the BBC website, two of London’s biggest publishers realised this was “a perfect distillation of popular lifestyle obsessions”. They set out to find people who could write books for them on the subject, and so two bestsellers were born, spawning a host of imitations. 

Sweden has a different word that means roughly the same thing: mys (the noun) and mysig (the adjective). There have even been some half-hearted attempts to sell mys to a foreign audience in the same way as hygge. But the real meaning of mys in Swedish society is rather different, it seems to me. The reason for this, I think, is that mys has become so firmly identified with Friday nights, or fredagsmys – the “Friday cosy”. 

Fredagsmys is a collective sigh of relief that the working / school week is over, and now it is time for the whole family to come together in front of some trashy TV with a plate of easy finger-food. The word first appeared in the 1990s, entered the dictionary in 2006, and became a semi-official national anthem three years later with this joyous ad for potato crisps:

In this portrayal, mys is radically different to hygge. It is a celebration of the ordinary, witty and multi-cultural, featuring green-haired goths and a mixed-race family with small children. Food is central to fredagsmys, and what is the typical food of choice? Mexican, of course! Not a herring in sight.

Why Mexican? It seems nobody is really sure, but tacofredag now has roots in Swedish society. Tacos, tortillas, and all the accompanying spices and sauces take up a whole aisle of the typical Swedish supermarket. Swedes are accustomed to eating bread with various bits and pieces on top, according to a specialist in Swedish food culture, while the Swedish tradition of smörgåsbord (open sandwiches) makes a buffet meal seem natural. The fussiness of tacos is even reminiscent of a kräftskiva crayfish party.

There is no cultural exclusivity here. On the contrary, fredagsmys food could equally be Italian, North American, Middle-Eastern, British or French. And children are absolutely central to a good Friday cosy. 

With Swedish mys, everybody is welcome. Get cosy and relax, but do it by mixing and getting messy, rather than retreating into pure, perfect, rarified isolation. There is a time and a place for hygge. But the Swedish version is more real, more fun, and more inclusive.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University