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Feature - Issue #10

The Sámi Narrative

Words by Anna Souter
Photographs by Ánne Kátjá Gaup

Sámi people have an ancient reciprocal relationship with reindeer and the landscapes of the European Arctic. Against the backdrop of a warming world and the spectre of “green colonialism”, their way of life is under threat.

Karen Anna and reindeer.

There are many myths about how the reindeer and the Sámi people formed such a close bond. Some say the reindeer were given to the Sámi people by the sun. Others say that a reindeer god made the whole Arctic landscape, giving its blood for rivers, its fur for grass, and its eyes for the stars. Others still tell a story of a daring quest to the land of the stone giants, a romance, and a herd of reindeer as a dowry from the giants.

Reindeer herder Nils Peder Gaup describes a powerful tale about a reindeer that approached a Sámi man and asked for his protection. A partnership was formed. For centuries, Sámi people have guarded the reindeer from predators and ensured they have enough to eat. In return, the Sámi have received the reindeer’s gifts of furs, meat, and bones, utilising them for warmth, food, and art. This is a simple story, but it is powerful because it undermines western historical, anthropological, and scientific tropes about human beings “taming” wild animals; instead, Sámi culture is based on human-nonhuman reciprocity and interdependence.

Reindeer herding is the beating heart of Sápmi, the Sámi cultural region, which covers much of the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as part of Russia. Centuries-long colonial campaigns have attempted to portray these landscapes as empty, pristine wildernesses. This carefully constructed fantasy has allowed successive generations of rulers and settlers to plunder Sápmi for its so-called resources, including oil, minerals, and timber. But in reality, the Sámi have been living in and managing the European Arctic for centuries. The land is truly neither empty nor wild. People and reindeer weave a delicate balance across the Arctic’s diverse ecosystems.

Sámi people are still living with the scars of racism and discrimination faced across the region for many years. The governments of Norway, Sweden, and Finland have each previously implemented cultural assimilation programmes, actively attempting to erase Sámi languages and cultural practices, forcing members of Sámi communities to relocate, to give up their livelihoods, and to adopt western styles of living and worshipping. Although these programmes were rescinded a matter of decades ago, Sámi people continue to feel the damage. Nordic governments and societies are only recently beginning to recognise and atone for the years of state-sanctioned racism; meanwhile, prejudice and discrimination against Sámi people and ways of life are still common.

In Norway, for example, although reindeer herders receive some state support, there is also an overriding narrative that reindeer herding is bad for the ecosystems of Sápmi. Some argue that, much like the deer kept on Scotland’s highlands, reindeer are overgrazing the tundra, causing damage and preventing new trees from growing. On the face of it, from a sub-Arctic perspective, this seems like a cogent argument. Rewilding is seen by many as a possible means of stemming the tide of the climate crisis. In many places across the world, the regeneration of forests is seen as a positive step towards reparation; we all know of the ability of trees to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But Sápmi is not the same as Scotland. The Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet and the treeline is creeping northwards. Sápmi is, or should be, snow-covered for much of the year. The snow reflects the sun’s heat, creating cycles of cool air. Trees, however, interrupt the sparkling white landscapes with dark patches. These absorb the sun’s heat, melting the surrounding snow and contributing to the warming climate on both local and global scales. This has a double impact in the Arctic because if the permafrost begins to melt, ancient repositories of methane and other atmospheric gases are released, to devastating effect. Reindeer herding is a light-touch way of keeping the tundra and the permafrost intact, practiced by people who have held a reciprocal and intimate relationship with this landscape for centuries.

Installation photo Pile o’Sápmi at the National Museum. Photograph Michael Miller/OCA.

‘The Sámi Pavilion’ artist Máret Ánne Sara and her brother, Jovsset Ánte Sara. Photograph by National Museum/Annar BjØrgli.

The Norwegian government supports reindeer herding to some extent, seeing it as an industry that creates and supplies a market for reindeer meat, but it operates a strict system of quotas and controls. Since the introduction of the Reindeer Herding Act in 2007, the government has introduced heavy culling quotas for Sámi reindeer herders, citing environmental damage caused by overgrazing. Under the act each herder is required to cull a large percentage of their herd, hitting younger herders particularly hard by reducing already-small herds to sizes that are not economically viable. The quotas have affected the family of Máret Ánne Sara, one of three contemporary artists representing Sápmi in the groundbreaking Sámi Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale (the renaming of the Nordic Pavilion marks the first time that the Sámi people had been recognised as a sovereign people at the Biennale in a pavilion bearing their name). Rather than submitting, Sara’s younger brother, Jovsset Ante Sara, decided to appeal the ruling in the courts.

Throughout a lengthy and expensive legal process (winning in both the local and provincial courts, but losing at a supreme court trial in Oslo), Sara has supported her brother by showing solidarity and resistance through her artistic project, Pile o’Sápmi (2016-ongoing). In February 2016, Sara piled 200 reindeer heads outside the Inner Finnmark District Court and topped the pile with a Norwegian flag. The work refers to Pile o’Bones, the English translation of the Plains Cree name for Regina, Canada, which itself suffered from the white settler policy of controlling the Indigenous Canadian population by slaughtering millions of buffalo and piling their bones in unimaginably enormous heaps. Sara is attempting to hold the Norwegian government to account for essentially repeating devastating colonial events in the context of a 21st century nation that prides itself on its democratic values and its respect for human and animal rights.

This summer, when visitors enter the new National Museum in Oslo, they will be greeted by another iteration of Pile o’Sápmi, a flag made up of the skulls of culled reindeer. Each skull has a dark hole in the middle of the forehead. In normal small-scale culls, individual reindeer would be picked out and killed by hand by the herder; the family would then use every part of the animal for food, clothing, and craft. In the government-mandated culls, reindeer are rounded up, forced into metal containers, and shot. The bodies are mostly taken to centralised depots to be frozen. This is environmental management on an industrialised scale, riding roughshod over the Indigenous knowledge held and cultivated by the Sámi people for generations. As Máret Ánne Sara puts it, “the method of the mass culling was essentially a collective punishment” for the Sámi people. The work’s inclusion in such a prominent position within the National Museum is a landmark moment, suggesting a rapidly growing awareness of problematic colonial approaches to Sámi people.

Pile o’Sápmi, installed outside the Inner Finnmark District Court, Tana, February 2016. Photograph courtesy of Máret Ánne Sara.

Sara’s work draws attention to ongoing colonial and discriminatory practices towards the Sámi people across the Nordic region. Governments continue their attempt to present the Arctic north as empty, presenting it as the perfect location for “green” industrial projects such as wind farms. Reindeer are nervous animals; their ancient migratory routes are disrupted by unfamiliar sounds and surfaces such as the noise of the turbines and access infrastructure such as roads and pylons. Sámi activists and politicians have referred to these projects as “green colonialism”.

It is widely agreed that Indigenous peoples are not responsible for the climate crisis facing the global population. And yet, in Sápmi as elsewhere, Indigenous people are taking the biggest toll. Renewable energy projects are forced onto Sámi lands without consent. The Sámi Parliament of Norway is consulted about these projects, but their findings and responses are often overruled. In 2021, the Norwegian supreme court ruled that the Norwegian state’s licencing of wind turbines on sacred Sámi reindeer herding lands around Fovssen in central Norway was invalid. Lawyers for the Sámi herders believe the court decision should lead to the 151 turbines being taken down; to date, the turbines still stand.

Spring migration with reindeer.

‘The erasure of Sámi culture and livelihoods by the Nordic governments is shocking, considering the pride taken by those nations in their international reputations as centres of democratic and humanitarian values.’

It is ironic and sad that Indigenous people are expected to give up their livelihoods and cultures in order to make way for “solutions” to a problem they did not cause, particularly when the climate crisis is already jeopardising the Sámi way of life. For centuries, the Arctic winter has been reliably cold and dry; temperatures would drop far below freezing and stay there, preserving thick drifts of powdery snow. The reindeer would dig through the snow to access the nutrient-rich lichen that grows abundantly on the tundra. Recent winters, however, have been much less predictable, with temperatures fluctuating wildly from day to day, sometimes rising above freezing and even bringing rain. These fluctuations cause the snow to thaw and refreeze, creating compacted layers of ice over the lichen and cutting the reindeer off from their food source. Many Sámi families have been forced to start feeding their reindeer with pellets in the winter months, driving for miles on snowmobiles to carry out the labour-intensive process.

The ecologies of Sápmi are diverse and delicate, held in a fragile reciprocal balance between people and reindeer. Frozen lakes and snow-covered tundra might seem blank and wild to outsiders, but to many Sámi people these landscapes are local, various, and intimately known. Their management requires local, intergenerational knowledge, and a step back from extractivist and “green colonial” approaches.

The Sámi people have a long history as land defenders and environmental protestors, making the forcible occupation of Sápmi by “green” industry and the accusations of ecological mismanagement particularly bitter pills to swallow. The erasure of Sámi culture and livelihoods by the Nordic governments is shocking, considering the pride taken by those nations in their international reputations as centres of democratic and humanitarian values.

Many Sámi artists, activists, and politicians believe in the power of telling Sámi stories on the world stage, using platforms as diverse as the Venice Biennale, social media, and international networks of Indigenous peoples. They argue that external interest in the challenges faced by Sámi people will put pressure on the Nordic governments to apologise for their colonial histories and to put further sovereignty over Sápmi into the hands of its traditional guardians. For Máret Ánne Sara, art is an important way of sharing Sámi narratives: “We have stories about colonialism, land destruction, and existential exhaustion. These stories are important for other Sámi people and for people all over the world.” For many Sámi people, she explains, this is part of a wider fight “to fill the information gap and reclaim reality.”

Girl in her gákti, part of the traditional clothing worn by Sámi people while herding reindeer.

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