Sami people seek to preserve a culture that seeks mystic harmony with nature


December 23, 1990|By Jennifer Merin

Lapland. December. It's snowing. Fine flakes dus still-glistening drifts that blanketed timberland and tundra last week. Lapland is twilight white.

The sun sank below the horizon weeks ago and won't ascend till January's end. This is the dark phase of the Arctic's cycle of light: gray daylight, stars twinkling for 20 hours straight, the Northern Lights spraying green-glowing waves across the sky.

The temperature is 40 degrees below zero. A man's breath freezes on his beard; the air is so dry the bone-chilling cold feels half as frigid as it might in more humid climes.

But I'm warm, as I observe the harsh but beautiful winterscape from the comfort of a bus, en route from Alta to Karasjok, a four-hour ride across northern Norway in the heart of Lapland. This vast, sparsely populated region encompasses the northernmost reaches of Norway, Sweden and Finland. It is the homeland of the Sami (known also as Lapps, a name they consider derogatory), an indigenous people who have inhabited Lapland, which they call Sapmi, since before history was written and lines drawn over landscapes defined nations.

The countryside is so pristine, I imagine it is as it was long ago, before Lapland was punctuated with villages whose presence is signaled by smoke from chimneys half-hidden behind snowdrifts. Today, Sami reside in modern houses, working as architects, doctors, mechanics and policemen, and using snowmobiles and satellite dishes. But until early this century, Sami were nomads, migrating in groups of five or six families, sheltering in tents or turf huts and surviving by herding reindeer, fishing or hunting elk, foxes and bears.

It was a Sami song about bears that brought me to Lapland. I heard it in Stockholm. Ailu Gaup, an agile man clad in traditional reindeer skin clothes and boots with upturned toes, sang sounds unlike any I had heard before: yodels, warbles, wails, grunts and growls modulated into a mesmerizing croon.

Although I understood not a word -- the song was in Sami -- my mind's eye saw a bear ambling through the forest, rearing onto his hind legs for all to know his domination. Two playful cubs tumbled over each other, sniffed flowers and batted after butterflies that flew away.

The captivating images put me into a dreamlike state. Later, Mr. Gaup said my images and the scenario of his song -- a Sami yoik -- were identical. He wasn't surprised. Yoiks, he explained, express feelings about nature, the seasons, the hunt or love -- feelings so intense they erupt in song. You don't need words to understand them.

The Sami were well-established in Sapmi when Nordic and Russian marauders swept through, slaying and plundering, demanding furs and deer hides, and later money. The Sami were never conquered -- probably because they, peaceable people who viewed themselves as hunters rather than warriors, rarely resisted. They survived through adaptation, moving farther north, from lowlands to highlands, herding instead of hunting reindeer, accommodating the tide of immigrants flooding Sapmi from the south. Norwegians, Swedes and Finns saw Lapland as Europe's Wild West, the last frontier where riches -- furs, fish, silver, iron -- awaited those with endurance to take them.

National boundaries established between Norway and Sweden in 1751 must have made little sense to the Sami -- because those borders run north and south, contrary to the natural flow of things in Sapmi, where rivers, reindeer migrations and Sami herding routes run west to east. But Norway and Sweden, with policies particularly enlightened for the times, guaranteed Sami the right to cross borders freely while herding reindeer. Thus their traditional lifestyle and notion of Sapmi continued to exist.

In the long term, however, borders created dual identities for Sami, who are citizens of Norway (about 30,000), Sweden (about 20,000), Finland (about 6,000) and the U.S.S.R. (about 3,000) -- each with distinct policies regarding Sami rights and integration into the predominant culture.

In total population, now about 50,000 to 60,000, Sami are united in language (Sami, with nine distinct dialects, is related to Finnish and Hungarian but not to Nordic tongues), culture and fundamental ideology, which involves a mystical sense of harmony with nature.

Their concern for nature has, in part, awakened Sami cultural and political consciousness in the last decade, resulting in improved conditions and attitudes toward them. But, despite progress, Sami find themselves in political struggles over land use. Norway and Sweden have disturbed Sami grazing and fishing areas by reserving large tracts for the military, and building hydro power stations -- necessary for fueling Scandinavia -- that alter river courses and create new lakes.

Sami organizations are advising Norwegian and Swedish lawmakers on Sami issues concerning rights and culture.

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