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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

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

The Sámi

One of the more obscure exhibits at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, ALberta 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.'

The Sámi still live in many parts of their ancient homelands, which they call Sápmi, the northern regions of 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 North America 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."

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 was indeed nomadic and lived in the most northern parts of their territory, often living in a tipi-like tent called a láwu. 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.

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.'

It comes from the Finnish language, to which the Sámi languages are also related (any of you avid international hockey watchers who thought 'Suomi' seems a bit similar to 'Sámi' are quite right). 'Lapp' means 'patch; piece of cloth used to mend a worn piece of clothing.' 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 were 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.

After many years of especially difficult times, over the past twenty-five — and again, 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 non-Russian Sápmi. If you try a Google 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 live within four different countries, 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, the moon, and the runebommen, the drum that is both a basic musical instrument and the key tool of Sámi shamans. They also have a special connection to Canada: in 1975 the Sámi delegation helped found the World Council for Indigenous Peoples in Port Alberni, British Columbia.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:27 MDT