“And then, look at this talisman I’m wearing. It is made of silver. All Sámis always carry some silver with them – we believe it keeps evil spirits away”

Karoline Kemi Nyheim

Sustainable Farmhouse

We were welcomed by a friendly looking girl dressed in a colourful dress, with mainly bright red tonalities. She was blonde and very pale-skinned, but with broad, cheekbones, like those of many Finns, distantly reminiscent of the look of the Tungstic people of Siberia. Her dress stuck out in the whiteness of the frozen morning valley, giving her a fairy-tale-like aura. On a snowmobile covered with reindeer skins she took us to a lavvu at about a kilometre from our encampment. Quickly making a fire at the centre of the tent, she sat us around it in a circle and presented herself: her name was Karoline Kemi Nyheim: Kemi standing as an indicator of her ancient Sámi heritage on her mother’s side, whilst her name and second surname were truly Norwegian, like her father. She started enthusiastically telling us about the life of her family, and of her people and, especially, her reindeer.

The Sámi people are the indigenous group of northern Scandinavia. They speak a language of the Uralic group, that sounds a bit like Finnish, but is actually only very distantly related to it. The Sámi are present in the current territories of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The main, and most traditional, sustenance activity of the Sámi is reindeer herding, which is organised in families and, in turn, organises the life of each Sámi family. My family has a normal size herd, of around 2000 reindeer, but the herds of some families can even reach 10’000 animals.

Not all Sámi families live in lavvus and herd reindeer, however. The fact is that the semi-nomadic life o herders is extremely tough. The animals need to be mended all the time – you need a great love of being outdoors, because, come the ice and snow in winter or the cold rain in summer, the animals are always in the open.

The organising element in the life of Sámi families is the season migration of the reindeer. Every family has a summer and a winter pasture area. My family keeps the herd in the Lyngen Alps nearby during the summer, and moves down to a fjord in Middle Norway for the winter – that is a journey of about 400km!

The reindeer spend almost the entirety of their life in complete freedom. During the summer, our reindeer are therefore able to search for the best grass all over the vast mountain range, where they also mate and give birth to their offspring every year. When the end of summer comes, the huge task that awaits the family is gathering the whole herd into a single paddock, where the animals to be slaughtered are selected and from where the huge trek to the winter pastures begins.

Once the gathering had to be done on foot and could take up to two months by itself. Now, we are able to do it in less than a month thanks to quad bikes, helicopters and drones. Those animals that go really far up into the mountains, however – they need to be still reached and brought back on foot.

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Only last year in central Tromso a young man wearing Sámi traditional dress was beaten up in Tromso.

At this point Karoline takes out from a small scabbard attached to her waist a middle-sized chopping knife.

Karoline Kemi Nyheim

Karoline Kemi Nyheim

Once gathered in a single paddock, all the new-born claves need to be marked. This is done with a knife like this one. Sámi men actually always carry two knifes. A big one, to be used outdoors, for things like repairing sledges or the lavvu, or for marking the reindeer, and a smaller one for indoor tasks, especially the cutting of meat. Each family has a specific symbol to mark their reindeer, and each individual too has a personal symbol. Calves, which are always found next to their mothers are marked with the same symbols as the mother: on one ear the owner’s family symbol, and on the other his personal symbol. Every single individual, whether 4 months or 95 years old has a personal and a family symbol – it is something that stays with you your whole life and is imbued with identity and spiritual meaning. It not only stands to indicate your belonging to the Sámi community – represents the deep sense of responsibility involved in being a herder. Accordingly, every single member of the family, no matter their age, contributes, to the best of their ability, in the gathering and marking process in autumn. Whether it is by keeping the calves still, hiking the mountains to get them, or making a fire, all are involved and feel a sense of belonging in the family and the community through their work.

Once the marking process is done, part of the livestock, particularly those animals that look too weak or too old to survive migration and the harsh Scandinavian winter, are selected for breeding. Norwegian law gives us fixed numbers for our herds, and thus all surplus livestock needs to be slaughtered each year. Traditionally, this is done by the owner personally. The Sámi way of slaughtering reindeer involves a stab by a specific knife with a curved blade at the back of the head, which kills the animal instantly, without any pain. However, as this is carried outdoors, it does not meet the governmental sterility standards. All the reindeer that is not needed for the family’s meet consumption is therefore sent to slaughterhouses for meat production. Reindeer meat constitutes the core of the Sámi diet: blood sausages, blood pancakes, brain bread are delicious delicacies. A lot of young people, of course, want pizza and pasta, but this remains the real diet of the herders, best suited for our climate and truly local.

Most importantly, the Sámi use everything from the reindeer once slaughtered, every single edible meat is eaten or conserved for the remainder of the year. The horns are used to create ornaments and talismans, the skins are used to produce clothes. Look at these shoes I am wearing: they are traditional Sámi footwear made entirely out of reindeer skin. They are naturally waterproof and the fur on the outside provides grip and warmth in the snow, whilst at the same time allowing the foot to breath and the toes to move freely, feeling the ground underneath and thus maintaining the muscles active and warm whenever walking. It is this complete symbiosis between man and reindeer that has allowed the Sámi people to thrive in the harsh climate of the Arctic for so many centuries.

Having explained these few details about the Sámi people’s special relationship to reindeer, Karoline open up to any questions from us. We begin by inquiring about the peculiar space where we find ourselves. What is the lavvu traditionally made of? Do all Sámi people live in lavvus?

Once upon a time the Sámi were a fully nomadic people, and lived in lavvus all year round. The lavvu is nowadays mainly used during the period of migration, when families have to follow the herds over hundreds of kilometres, moving every day. In Norway there is a right, sanctioned by law, that permits anybody to cross any unbuilt land, whether public or private, as long as it doesn’t hinder the activities normally carried out in the land. It includes the right to camp, for a maximum of one night, basically anywhere. We are now thus living in a state of semi-nomadism: we have a typical Norwegian family house next to here in the valley, close to our summer pastures, which we use most of the year. Since herding is not a very lucrative business, most of my siblings have another job in the city, or study, and thus they live here when doing that. It is only those members of the family that are working with the animals at any given time that might stay in a lavvu for convenience. And I ensure you, it’s such a comfortable life. In a lavvu everybody sleeps on the floor, on the softest reindeer skins. Everything has symbolic meaning and order within the lavvu too. Thus the right side from the entrance is for the owner’s family, whilst the left side is for guests. The fireplace in the centre is scared, and nobody ought to step over it: that is where food and warmth come from! The door of the lavvu, in turn, is always placed away from the wind, so as to ensure the tent stays warm.

Like almost everything else in a Sámi household, lavvus were not made of synthetic fabric like this one, but of reindeer skins. Nowadays however, to economise and make everything more practical, almost all lavvus are made of synthetic textiles.

We then inquire about what it’s like being a Sámi nowadays. Is there discrimination? And the language, is it spoken a lot? Is it easy to acquire for the younger generations?

Sámi people were under a lot of discrimination until my parents’ generation. The government wanted the Sámi to become like everybody else, and many Sámi children were taken from their families and forced to attend boarding schools where only Norwegian was allowed. It was very difficult for people to get any kind of job in the cities being Sámi, and so parents up until very recently really tried to discourage children from openly showing their Sámi origin and speaking the language. As a consequence, there were, until a few decades ago, fewer and fewer people who could speak Sámi fluently. Then everything changed, the Norwegian government, especially here in the north, supports the Sámi culture. All signs in Tromso, for instance, are bilingual, and children of Sámi origin have by law the right to attend their whole education in Sámi, with many more children learning it at school. This means that most young Sámis are now completely bilingual.

Yet, discrimination continues. Only last year in central Tromso a young man wearing Sámi traditional dress was beaten up in Tromso. For many people the differences are still perceived as threatening, rather than as enriching. And Sámi truly is a rich language. Like, there aren’t that many words for modern things, like computers and machinery – we have to use the Norwegian or English word for that. But we have over 300 words describing snow. Sámi has also many different dialects. I basically can’t understand a Sámi from the south if they are talking about everyday thing, but if we are talking about reindeer, well then we can all understand each other. Talk about herding is our universal language.

It is true that Sámi does not have a written tradition like other European languages, but it has a very rich oral tradition, that has been handed down through the generations for centuries. And the Sámi have always made use of a rich body of symbols for all sorts of purposes. And the clothes are part of this: by looking at a Sámi’s clothes you can tell their status, you can also tell whether a girl is married or not. The belt plays a big role in this: you see these buttons all around my belt? Well, mine are round, which shows I’m not married. Once I’ll marry, I will start wearing squares. And for funerals too, you can always tell who’s Sámi by the fact that they wear the most colourful clothes, whilst Norwegians would all be dressed in black. Every family has slightly different designs and, you can even tell which region a Sámi is from by looking at the style of their clothes. 

And then, look at this talisman I’m wearing. It is made of silver. All Sámis always carry some silver with them – we believe it keeps evil spirits away. Of course the Sámi did not mine for the silver themselves, they had to trade for it. And it was often through the use of coins that they made these medallions. My grandma, for instance, has some huge medallions made of different old silver coins.

Trade was always important for the Sámi. Back in the past there used to be two distinct groups: mountain Sámi and coast Sámi. The former were herders, and would descend to the coast in autumn to trade meat and skins for everything they needed but couldn’t produce with the coast people, who soon mixed with the newly arrived Norwegians.

Fascinated by the richness of this remote culture, we ask about the religious or spiritual beliefs of the Sámi? Do they have a figure similar to the Mongolian shaman, able to communicate with natural and ancestral spirits, and heal?

Oppression of Sámi culture in the past also meant an attempt to destroy traditional religious beliefs. One of the earliest forms of assimilation imposed upon the Sámi by the Swedes and Norwegians was conversion to Christianity. Nowadays, the Sámi are generally Christian, and follow Christian traditions and celebrations, with many Sámi attending church regularly. For a lot of people, however, Christianity exists together with a rich undertext of pagan practices. The Sámi of old believed in a wealth of spirits connected to nature and to the ancestors (they were often one and the other thing at the same time), we also had traditional healers, who were also central figures in ritual ceremonies. These “shamans” were called noaidi. The noaidi healed through traditional knowledge connected to the elements of nature, but also managed to communicate with the spirits through hypnotic drumming on beautiful, decorated drums, made of reindeer skin and covered by sacred symbols. They accompanied the drumming with hypnotic chanting called joik. These practices were considered threatening by early Scandinavian settlers in the north and they were banished as blasphemous practices linked to sorcery.

Noaidi still exist, and it is not uncommon for families to turn to them when facing illnesses and other problems. However, due to the deeply rooted discrimination of the past, faithful Sámi keep their pagan practices very low-profile, and the most powerful noaidi are to be found only within communities and through family connections. Sámi people are extremely welcoming, but centuries of discrimination have led them to be discreet. One can become a Sámi only through marriage into a Sámi family. This, I want to emphasise it, brings with itself a lot of responsibilities: to our culture, our people, our reindeer, our land.

By then it is time to leave the lavvu. We head out to a nearby paddock where five white reindeer are meekly grazing, digging in the frozen ground for lichen, bark, and the rare tawny blade of grass. Harmoniously sharing the colours of the frozen landscape and steep valleys, the reindeer give substance to the magical, spiritual, harmonious life, not devoid of struggles and sacrifices, that Karoline had just told us about. Much tinier than we had imagined them, the reindeer owe much of their appeal to their huge, intricate antlers, covered with moss, as if to indicate a special union between animals, plants and stones in this ancestral, elemental environment. Gently gathering the animals with some moss, in the silence and fragile twilight of a winter Arctic noon, we attach our sleighs to their back, and we’re off, through a frozen valley, where the same hoofs have been treading since the beginning of time. 

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