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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

The Sámi

One of the more obscure exhibits at the glenbow museum in calgary, alberta1 tells the story of a frankly harebrained sounding federal program to establish reindeer herds in the canadian arctic. The plan was that then the various Dene and Inuit communities living there could build a new economy around reindeer herding. Many of the people who worked to bring the herds to canada were Sámi, members of another northern Indigenous nation. Ironically, even though the display does not call Inuit "Eskimos" it refers to Sámi as "Lapps" or "Laplanders." While Inuit in parts of the area settlers currently call alaska may have different views of the term "Eskimo" than Inuit whose lands are mapped as if they were part of the settler state of canada, Sámi certainly do not favour the terms "Lapp" or "Laplander."

The Sámi still live in many parts of their ancient homelands, which they call Sápmi, the northern regions of what settlers currently call finland, sweden, and norway as well as the kola peninsula of russia. Today the majority of the Sámi live in norway and sweden, while most of those from the kola peninsula have been forced to relocate to finland. They can trace their ties to the region back at least 10 000 years based on the archaeological record. Like Indigenous people in the americas however, the Sámi see this record as important primarily in terms of dealing with the western legal system. When asked how long they have lived in Sápmi, many Sámi quote the words of the first Sámi author, Johan Tuuri: "We, the Sámi people, come from nowhere. We have always been here, long before anybody else."2

Sami flag. Sami flag.
Sámi flag courtesy of wikimedia commons, 1986

The most famous images of Sámi are those of the reindeer herding "Laplander," and like the image of the "Hollywood Indian," it is almost entirely a product of western imagination and interactions with western culture. In the beginning an important part of the Sámi population did move according to a yearly cycle of systematic moves throughout their traditional lands, and lived in the most northern parts of their territory. Their homes, logically enough, were tipi-like tents called a láwu.3 But they didn't actually herd reindeer, although they often kept a few tame reindeer to use as hunting decoys, a common practice. The Forest Sa´mi lived to the south, and moved around rather less. The Sea Sámi, who live along the norwegian coast and around large lakes were quite as sedentary as any of their non-Sámi neighbours. Reindeer herding developed as a way of life in the 1700s, after outsiders forced a shift to private ownership practices on one hand, and devastated the original economy of the northern Sámi on the other. In other words, they were introducing reindeer herding as a way to have the Sámi build a new economy, which should sound oddly familiar.

Of course, not all of the image was wrong. Just as in real life members of plains First Nations are known to wear buckskin and beads, Sámi regalia does include curl-toed boots and beautifully embroidered clothing. Clothing is also the source of the now derogated term "Lapp" or "Laplander." The words come from the finnish language, to which the Sámi languages are also related, so if any of you avid international hockey watchers thought "Suomi" seems a bit similar to "Sámi," you are quite right. "Lapp" means "patch; piece of cloth used to mend a worn piece of clothing" according to many linguists, although arguments about it continue. Like many terms imposed on Indigenous people, the translation may be inflected by the ideas the imposers have about the indigenous people.4 The Sámi are actually the original inhabitants of finland, and were pushed further north to places where it was much harder to live, as they were all over Sápmi. The resulting dislocation lead to widespread poverty, and this was reflected in the tattered, well-patched clothing most Sámi wore. Many Sámi lived and live outside of the area of finland referred to as "Lapland" in english as well, so there are many reasons to end its use. Terminology being what it is, even "Sámi" isn't quite right – in their own language, the Sámi refer to themselves as Sápmelas, which includes the name of their land, Sápmi, as we should expect.

Map of Sapmi. Map of Sapmi.
Map of Sápmi courtesy of vimeo, via the u.n. documentary Last Yoik in the Sámi Forests.

After many years of especially difficult times including waves of bubonic plaguein the 14th century, over the past twenty-five like many other Indigenous nations, the Sámi have experienced a veritable rebirth. It is becoming less common for Sámi to opt to conceal their heritage from people they don't know well, and the Sámi language is being taught in schools all over much of Sápmi not currently held by russian settlers. If you try a web search for "Sámi crafts" or something similar, you will discover that there is a growing market for traditional Sámi carving, leatherwork, and embroidery. One of the places you can customarily see Sámi in their regalia is at one of the Sámi parliaments in norway, sweden, or finland. The yoik, a Sámi music form based around singing a few carefully chosen words that invoke a person, place, or event has found a place in popular music recordings.

Although today the Sámi find their land divided between four different settler boundaries, they continue to consider themselves one people. In 1986, at a gathering of the Nordic Sámi Council, a body that has existed in some form since the early 19th century, the Sámi adopted a flag bringing together the four key colours of their regalia, symbolism of the Sun and Moon, and the runebommen, the drum that is both a basic musical instrument and the key tool of Sámi noaidis. They also have a special connection to canada: in 1975 the Sámi delegation helped found the World Council of Indigenous Peoples at a meeting in port alberni, british columbia. The council continued working for Indigenous rights around the world until 1996, when the members opted to disband and form a series of separate organizations due to their changing needs. The archives of the WCIP were moved to library and archives canada in 2002.5

Settlers and other outsiders continue to puzzle over the Sámi and basically ignore what the Sámi themselves have to say about their origins and history. To date, geneticists have found contrary to what linguistics might lead us to expect that the Sámi are genetically distinct from speakers of related languages or anyone else labelled "indo-european." The trouble with all this is that the genetic studies focus almost exclusively on Y-chromosomes, effectively assuming that only the men are Sámi, and the women might have been grabbed from anywhere or anybody else around. Nevertheless, the evidence scientists gather strongly suggests that the Sámi, like the Basques, are determined survivors of the oldest Indigenous populations in their part of asia, who may be cautiously traced right back into the neolithic. Readers interested in more details, including extensive references should visit the somewhat mysterious Sami Culture pages hosted by the liberal arts department of the university of texas at austin. They appear to be the product of a student project originally built in flash and provided with a sensible html alternative version. A more recent firmspace publication is Veli-Pekka Lehtola's 2004 book, The Sámi People: Traditions in Transition.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2018 0:54:58