Lapland: Sámi Ways

“LET’S JOKE! You can joke your friends, joke a beautiful mountain or just joke being sad or happy.” Anna-Reetta Niemelä, a teacher of Sámi language and culture in the village of Karesuvanto, high in northern Lapland, has me baffled for a moment. Clad in her bright red and blue “gákti” tunic, her thick accent – different from the usual Finnish one – takes me some time to tune in to.

Joik” – once she shows me how – turns out to be a Sámi chant that reminds me of the better-known rituals of Native American tribes or Buddhist monks. It has the same spiritual overtones and was once banned as un-Christian by missionaries but its roots were too deep to die out completely. Its resurgence is a sign of the rebirth of Sámi culture.

Anna-Reetta explains that a joik is a way of conjuring up a feeling. It is not a song, in the sense of having words or a tune, or even being repeatable. I might project a joik to represent me, like some audible version of Princess Leia’s hologram in Star Wars, but it will change as I do, just as her hologram might change to reflect a change of clothes. It is raw emotion. The Sámi give each of their reindeer a joik and the animals will come when they hear it.

She sings a joik that belongs to her son, Matthias, who is now 21 and in the Finnish Army, after he fell in love with the outdoors – “the real life” – at the age of eight. Her voice becomes younger and more open, and I can feel the strength of young limbs skiing over mountain tops. Anna-Reetta’s enthusiasm is so contagious that she soon has me chanting along with her. “Do not be afraid of anything. Let it all come out,” she says. Then she ends by summing up her happiness at our meeting with another joik. Yes, the joik is on me.

The Sámi are Europe’s only remaining indigenous people, scattered across the north of Finland, Norway, Sweden and into Russia. Of the total population of some 70,000, just over 7,000 live in Finland, with 40,000 in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden and perhaps 2,000 in Russia. Their former lands – called Sápmi by them, Lapland by others, although the word “Lapp” once used to describe the people is now considered derogatory – have been broken up by national borders.

Those borders, not to mention the conflicts over them, helped put an end to the nomadic lifestyle that followed their reindeer herds. It is impossible to talk about the Sámi without talking about reindeer. They use the skin for clothing, the meat for food, the bones for medicine. Once wild, reindeer were domesticated by the Sámi thousands of years ago and allowed people to survive in a landscape so harsh that it also uniquely in Europe preserved their culture against outsiders.

Without the reindeer, there literally would be no Sámi. While they no longer follow the herds, and only one in ten Sámi still makes a living from them, the reindeer still roam wild. Asking a Sámi how many reindeer he has is as rude as asking anyone much they have in the bank but it is thought there are some 220,000 in Finnish Lapland alone. While predators such as bear and wolves are growing in number, the biggest threat is the loss of lichen, their sole winter diet, as the logging industry harvests too many of the older trees the moss thrives on.

Nils-Henrik Valkeapää, who I meet at a Sámi cultural center in Finnish Lapland, is possibly as Sámi as you can be. With his white hair and beard, and colorful Sámi costume, he could pass for more serious-minded Santa Claus. It turns out he was even born on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. His father acted as midwife when his mother went into labor in the wilderness while on their way to the doctor. Now a member of the Sámi parliament, he is a teacher who has spent his life trying to preserve Sámi culture and language and has seen some dark days. “In the 1950s and the 1960s, many Sámi thought speaking even bad Finnish to their children was better than undermining their linguistic development by speaking Sámi.” he says. “Thankfully, things are much better now.”

Things are so much better now, in fact, that some Finns pass themselves off as Sámi, by wearing the traditional clothes and using the culture just to entertain tourists, a fact that causes real concern. “To be Sámi, you must be born Sámi,” he says. “You have to speak the language and you must have ancestors who are Sámi. We interact with nature in its original state. Finnish people want to conquer nature.” He laments the changes – the “harmonization of lifestyle,” as he calls it – in the past decades as younger people become more integrated into modern Finnish society and move to the city.

It was the snowmobile – a machine designed to conquer nature if ever one was – that has made the biggest difference to the Sámi herding lifestyle. The first Bombardier Ski-Doo arrived in Finland from Canada in 1961 but within a few years there were hundreds. The Sámi quickly abandoned their skis as they found that the machine could haul large loads of fodder to the herds as well as allow the herders themselves to range over a larger area. There was no longer the need to live with and follow the herds.

Of course, having to buy gas and even the machines themselves saw the sale of meat and skin from the herds put on a much more commercial footing. Then the herds started to be concentrated in fewer, often younger hands as only those prepared to take the financial risk of borrowing money to buy snowmobiles prospered. In Finland, this issue was even more marked than in other countries where reindeer herding was reserved to Sámi only.

I get an idea of what a snowmobile means in this environment when I go on a photo safari with nature photographer Lassi Rautiainen. When he meets me at Kuusamo Airport, the so-called “Gateway to Lapland” and more than an hour’s flying time north of the capital Helsinki, he says: “It will be quite warm tomorrow: 20 or maybe even 18.” It is late January and, looking at the snow being swept from the runway, and shivering in a thick down jacket, I try to comprehend how the weather could change so quickly, before realizing he is just leaving the minus sign off. Why keep repeating the obvious?

In winter, temperatures in Lapland can drop to -30C and parts of the region see snow falling on some  225 days of the year. The next day dawns at (minus) 22ºC when we are up at 6am to drive on icy roads to a spot in the forest where we will take to the wilderness. Lassi has a snowmobile on a trailer which he unloads by the simple expedient of driving it in reverse into a snowbank. A sled is loaded with two pig carcasses, frozen solid by just being left outside overnight, that are to be laid out as bait for eagles. Then I hop up behind him and we take off through deep powder snow between the trees. The machine eats up the steep terrain with no sign of strain, bearing the weight of two men and its load – it took both of us to lift each of the three carcasses.

I spend the next few days in a blind, trying to catch a sight of eagles in the frozen landscape. Ice has to be scraped off the windows every morning, a paraffin heater struggles to get the inside temperature out of single digits and, despite our patience, we catch only the briefest glimpse of what might or might not have been an eagle in the distance.

However, once I understand I am not going to lose my nose to frostbite, it is not the cold that affects me. It is the beauty. The thick carpet of snow sugar-frosts the endless stands of spruce and pine trees to create an ethereal view. The sun barely rises above the horizon, casting light that lasts only a few hours. For a photographer, a Lapland winter is a dream Christmas-card landscape, with a short working day that is a continuous Golden Hour. “Morning and night say hello to each other,” as a local woman describes it to me.

Everything should be white, but the snow has endless shades, tinted by shadows and light, running through the rainbow from red to violet. Just as snow has its many different shades, so does the silence. There is the silence of a breeze that has moved the high branches, of a wind-blown stream of snow crystals, of a break in a bird’s song. Then there’s the quiet of walking through deep snow, bone dry from the sub-zero temperature and with a negative silence that sucks in any sound. It is a silence where starting an engine, or even firing a camera shutter, is an assault on nature itself.

I realize that, to understand Lapland, you have to spend time in such silence. You disappear into your own thoughts and greater significance is attached to anything you say, or don’t say. “Saat viisaan nimen, jos et virka mitten – You will be thought a wise man, if you keep your mouth shut,” says a Finnish proverb.

After our first day in the blind, I share an evening meal with Lassi where he explains that he has a government permit to feed wildlife, initially issued for his work photographing bears. The bait now also attracts wolves and wolverines as well as both golden and white-tailed eagles. Here, on the southern edge of Lapland, very close to the border with Russia, the land is free of both people and reindeer herds. “Golden eagles will attack the newborn of domestic reindeer,” he says. “In every area where there is a nesting pair, the government has to pay out thousands of euro in compensation to herd owners.” Of the 400 or so eagle pairs in Finland, most are in Lapland.

In hunting season, there is little chance of attracting any predators to his hides, however. “Between October and December, hunters kill up to 65,000 moose and, from October to January, they hunt deer,” he says. “When they gut their kill, and leave the entrails behind, it is like a picnic for bears and wolves as well as ravens and eagles.” It is a touchy subject. The Sámi blame blinds such as his set up for tourists as the reason for a rise in the number of predators that attack their herds. Lassi says that the Sámi will soon be starting up their own blinds for photographers as they rely more and more on tourism themselves.

After a few days sitting glued to a 500mm camera lens, I stretch my legs in what is a veritable winter playground. I find snowshoeing is a lot harder than it looks when floundering up to my waist in powder snow on a forested hillside. I enjoy cross-country skiing – much of the fun of downhill but with none of the leg-breaking worries. Then I learn that dog-sledding is incredibly exciting but a team of energetic huskies make no allowances for any low-hanging branches that might hit their human driver in the face. The same carefree attitude applies to their poop, thrown up by their galloping paws as they run in line. A reindeer is slightly more sedate, pulling me along on what looks very like a wooden cargo pallet while my Sámi minder keeps an eye out. Whether for me or his reindeer, I am not too sure but let’s be charitable and say both.

The reward for these long months of winter is a magnificent summer. Released from its heavy burden of winter snow, the earth literally springs to life, creating an idyllic view of land, water and sky – the light constantly changing as high clouds pass across the sun. Come July, it is hard recall that I am 300km above the Arctic Circle when I go fishing on Finland’s beautiful Lake Jerisjärvi. Jari Rossi’s great grandfather settled here in the 1860, a reminder that not all Sámi are reindeer herders. His Swedish Sámi ancestors had been coming for centuries to fish every summer on this lovely lake, an island of peat-dark, wind-peaked water amid a sea of swaying trees. A small settlement of picturesque log huts still stands on its shore, now used as summer cabins and for storage of tackle.

“We fish a little but drink a little – because now it’s a hobby, not work,” says Jari. In the modest style typical of Finland, he does not mention he is a Sámi shaman – I find out later – although he does casually say that his son Samuli, who is quietly helping in the background, likes taekwondo. He turns out to be representing Finland at the World Championships. Another man of few words.

I go out in a boat to help pay out a 100-metre crescent of net from the shore, then get on a winch to slowly haul it back in. After a lot of work, the catch is 15 medium-size Arctic carp. True to local form, Rossi pulls out his puukko – the razor-sharp knife every man here carries on his belt – to gut and scale them in seconds. He throws together a fire and puts some of the fish to smoke in a pan with alder chips, a handful of grass under them to stop them sticking.

As we wait for them to cook, along with some local new potatoes, he passes the time by telling the story of a local woodcutter called Pretty John who was famous for his strength. Attacked by a bear, who catches him in a fierce hug, he squeezes back until the bear says: “Not so hard! I give up!” When Pretty John later tells his friends about his escape, they point out that bears can’t talk. “It’s amazing how fast they can learn when they have to,” he says. That’s a real Sámi joke for you.

Published by Kieran

Travel writer

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